ShareReads appears on the DCPLive blog on Fridays. Each week, a different person will share a little about what they’re currently reading, and why they like or don’t like it. The heart of ShareReads will be responses from blog readers, and the window of opportunity here is wide. Feel free to respond and discuss the book or author being mentioned, ask or answer a question, or even take the conversation in a different direction: mention what you are currently reading, and how you feel about it. The point of ShareReads is to have an ongoing discussion about books and reading. Remember: posting a response also counts as an activity for the Summer Reading for Adults program.
Many of us have had the experience of reading a book that, long after it is over, we can’t seem to shake. The characters stick with us, the surprising plot twist at the end keeps popping up in our mind, the beauty of the writing compels us to seek out something of equal quality. I read The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, translated from the French by Alison Anderson for my monthly book club earlier in the spring. There are always “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” members of the group for each book we read but this was the first—and possibly only—unanimous “thumbs up” title we’ve had since I joined. The interesting and somewhat unique quality (for a modern novel in any case) is that not much seems to happen in terms of plot, but to me, that was perfectly fine. The novel takes place in Paris, and centers around two main characters, Renee and Paloma. Renee is a middle-aged concierge of an upper-class apartment building who wears the façade of a frumpy, vacuous, stereotypical working-class grunt in order to camouflage her true identity: a deep thinker, and a lover of Russian literature, Japanese cinema, and philosophy. Paloma, a 12-year old who lives in her building, is more than precocious, with astute, adult observations about herself and those around her. Her dissatisfaction with her world has led her to the decision to commit suicide when she turns 13, and her side of the story is told in the form of a journal in which she records her profound thoughts for posterity. When a new and mysterious resident moves into the building, the characters’ lives begin to more closely intersect as they gradually reveal their true selves to each other.
These characters, while perhaps unbelievable, are so rich and vivid (thanks to truly poetic prose) that I wanted this book to go on and on so that I could continue getting to know them. The last book to affect me the way this one has was The History of Love by Nicole Krauss, and I think a large part of its appeal is its engaging and charming characters (also a child and an adult, an elderly man in this case) and a tendency on the part of the writer to prefer depth as opposed to breadth. I wholeheartedly recommend both, as well as Barbery’s first book, Gourmet Rhapsody.
In general, do you find that a plot-driven book catches and holds your interest more than one that is character-driven? I would have placed myself in the first category until I reflected on those books that have most impacted me; almost all of the books that I would rate 10 of 10 focus much more on characters than plot.
Are there characters that have stuck with you, the way that Renee and Paloma have done for me? What are qualities that make a character memorable or compelling?