I loved Elegance of the Hedgehog,
primarily because Barbery created two characters who, although deeply flawed and often annoying, were so obviously vulnerable and sad that one (I) couldn't help but feel deeply for them. That story unfolded as carefully and precisely as an origami swan, revealing deeper nuance of character with each alternating chapter, bringing two very isolated and lonely characters together (through plot, character and symbolically). It also took broad and very funny swipes at the bourgeois conventions of the society in which they lived; offered a tantalizing and shocking revelation about one of the main characters in the penultimate chapter which cemented our compassion for her, and matched that with a very clever stylistic twist involving POV that let us know that Barbery was in complete control of her story all the way along.
For everything that Hedgehog
did right, this one does wrong. An unpleasant (and worse, uninteresting) main character who never becomes sympathetic; a central quest that is absolutely nonsensical and insignificant; secondary characters (too many; a new one in every alternating chapter) who neither reveal much about themselves, nor about M. Athens; no redeeming social satire whatsoever; and a formulaic style within each of M. Athens' chapters that becomes mind-numbingly repetitive as the bloody thing piles on chapter after chapter with no point or purpose.
Bleh. If I hadn't been led to believe (by Hedgehog
) that Barbery had the capacity to pull a braised rabbit from her stewpot at the last minute, I would have tossed it at the wall after the requisite 50 pages. As it was, I consumed a bunch of empty and over-sauced calories and am now seeking more robust and satisfying fare elsewhere.