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Transplanted to Miami, FL, from Iowa City, IA. Trying to find a balance between reading, knitting, playing mom taxi, and enjoying the sun and sand in Miami.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Elegance of the Hedgehog and Anna Karenina

I had picked up a copy of The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery in the airport. It was a book I had been drawn to before, but had never read. This book was definitely a change of pace from the urban fantasy that I had been reading. The book features Renee, who is a concierge in a residential hotel in Paris. She is very intelligent and has refined tastes that she fancies would not be accepted by the residents of the building, and so she hides them. She leaves her TV on to some show that she would never watch but that a concierge would be expected to watch, while she hides in her room and reads or watches classic movies. Another character that this book follows is Paloma, a very intelligent twelve year old girl, who also hides her intelligence. Paloma has decided that life is pointless and so she will commit suicide on her upcoming thirteenth birthday. To be fair, Paloma decides she will conduct a search to see if there is anything worth living for, and she writes journal entries recording her observations. 
This novel is really a snapshot of life. There really is not much in the way of plot, there is a lot of philosophy, and I spent a lot of time looking up references on wikipedia. Renee and the Japanese man who moves into her building strike up a friendship when they discover a mutual love for Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. That is what finally inspired me to read that classic book. 
I thoroughly enjoyed The Elegance of the Hedgehog, and would highly recommend it, I definitely do not want to spoil the end of the book, but it is definitely worth reading to the end. I would give The Elegance of the Hedgehog 2 bookmarks.
After finishing The Elegance of the Hedgehog, I decided to read Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. It was one that I had never read in school, and I only had a rudimentary knowledge of the plot. I have to say, I can see the similarities between these two novels. Both are really a snapshot of life in a certain place, at a certain time. They both explore a lot of philosophy that was prevalent at the time they were written. I will admit that Anna Karenina was a tough read. I read the Barnes and Noble Classics version. I thought they did a good job with the endnotes, and I didn’t have to look much up beyond reading those to follow the conversations. The toughest part about it was the characters and keeping track of who was who, since they were referred to by several different names often in the space of a couple pages, or even a paragraph. So, I would sometimes have to re-read a section to clarify who was in a particular passage. 
The story of the unhappily married Anna Karenina, who gives in to the temptation  and has an affair with a dashing young count. The affair eventually leads to the ruin of her reputation and the loss of her place in polite society. Another story line in the novel involves a man named Levin, who lives in the country but travels to the city to woo young Kitty. The juxtaposition of these two characters, and their romantic relationships drive the novel. The novel Anna Karenina has very detailed descriptions of life in 19th century Russia, both in the city and in the country. The reader also gets a trip to a German health springs and Italy. I could definitely see why this book is such a classic. It is an entertaining read, even though, like The Elegance of the Hedgehog, plot is a little scarce. But, it wasn’t hard to keep reading it until I finished it. 
It is interesting to think about how different things could have turned out for Anna and Count Vronsky, if they lived in a different time, or even if they occupied a different level in society. It is not difficult to feel sympathy for Anna’s plight. She was married while very young to a man twenty years her senior. She greatly loved her son, and I think that leaving her son with a father that didn’t love him as much as she did, was one of the things that Anna most regretted and wished she could change. I was fascinated by the change in Anna from the beginning of the novel to the end. She had been pretending to be happy, and then she found a chance at real happiness, but for Anna, love was not enough to occupy her. She began to drive Vronsky away, and at that point she also alienates the reader somewhat. However, Anna’s ability to see everything clearly at the end of the book redeems her. 
There are a lot of similarities between Anna and Renee from The Elegance of the Hedgehog. They had both been living the lives that were expected of them, trying to find small bits of happiness to make it bearable. Renee had loved her husband, unlike Anna and Karenin. But, both unexpectedly found a chance at happiness, and both had been a mentor of sorts to a younger woman. 
I really enjoyed Anna Karenina, and I am very glad I read it. I would give Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy 2 bookmarks