Sunday, August 2, 2009

Story line

Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a good book to use to talk about story line. Story line is an appeal element (along with pacing, characterization, detail, and tone, which we've already talked about, and language and setting, which are still to come). It encompasses genre, themes, and organization and construction.

The book is layed out as alternating journal entries of the two main characters. Madame Michel is a fiftysomething concierge for a wealthy apartment building who spends time trying to hide her intelligence and interest in philosophy, classical music, literature, and the like. Paloma is a 12-year-old girl so smart that she's already seen through to the absurdity of life and is ready to end hers.

Paloma's sections are made up of "Profound Thoughts" and entries in her "Journal of the Movement of the World," the former of which are much more frequent. Her entries in the latter represent "masterpieces of matter. Something incarnate, tangible," and she writes that if she sees enough or the right beautiful movements, she may not, after all, commit suicide on her 13th birthday. This story line aspect affects pacing and tone. As her "Profound Thoughts" pile up to "No. 15," she only gets to "No. 7" in her other journal, the one that could give her reason to live. I found myself looking ahead, hoping for more entries in the journal of the movement of the world, hoping for Paloma's change of heart.

Also pertaining to story line, the two characters each have their own font, which I found refreshing and helped to keep clear who was narrating each chapter. Yet it's an aspect I can imagine might annoy some readers. Themes include philosophy, art, class divisions; this is a heavily character-centered exploration of life's purpose and the role of culture, and if readers aren't interested in long literary ruminations, this is one to skip. However, it is made accessible, and, as the New York Times review notes, is in its own subgenre of an "accessible book that flatters readers with its intellectual veneer." The reviewer notes that the author's "brief carefully build in explanations for the literary and philosophical references that she seems to be assessing what a mass audience needs." To me, this is a good thing. I did get tired of the literariness at times, but the explanations at least kept me from giving up entirely.

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