Truthfully, part of the reason I chose The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery as one of my France books for the month was the title. That, and it came highly recommended.
Renée and Paloma are two people who live in a Parisian hotel/high-end apartment complex. Both share a fierce intelligence—unsuspected by their neighbors. However, while Paloma is a 12-year-old girl with rich parents, Renée is the 54-year-old poor concierge. Told from both points of view, we learn about the residents of the hotel, their rich, shallow lives contrasted with those of our narrators and the larger world. However, it’s the entrance of new resident, Ozu—a retired Japanese businessman—that wakes up both Renée and Paloma to their unhappiness and the possibility of something more in their lives.
This book shows a cross-section of life within a modern city with an ancient class structure. It shows that no matter how enlightened we are, we still tend to view others—and ourselves—along lines drawn in the sand centuries ago.
The Characters. There are a range of secondary characters in this book from the endearing and lovable—Manuela—to the irritating and shallow (aka Colombe and nearly every other resident of the hotel). But it’s one secondary character, Ozu, that acts as a catalyst in the lives of our two heroines: Renée and Paloma.
Renée is a shockingly intelligent concierge that puts on a front so that the residents of her building won’t suspect her love for art, music, and culture. It is about her that Paloma expounds on the elegance of the hedgehog:
“Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside she is covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary—and terribly elegant. ”
As a hedgehog owner, I quite agree with this analysis of the animal (although that’s besides the point).
Paloma is also shockingly intelligent and also seeks to hide it from others for her own reasons. She’s lost and unhappy, picturing a worthless, fruitless future in rich society with dread. So much so that she’s determined to escape it through suicide. Yet she’s not morose. Within the book, she gives witty observations and makes deep comments.
Ozu enters the picture, recognizing in both Renée and Paloma kindred spirits, people like himself who are intelligent, cultured, and agreeable. Through him, our main characters come to know each other, and everything changes.
The Storyline. I love the alternating voices of both main characters, waiting for those voices to gradually merge in a sort of dissonant harmony, complementing and contrasting with the other to form a single whole. The plot is character rather than action-driven, so the suspense is more of the variety of, “Has Paloma discovered the ultimate movement?” or “Does her next deep thought involve Renée?” On the whole, character-driven plots can be tedious, but this one wasn’t. Probably due to the humor. There’s this one moment that Renée has in a bathroom that’s gut-wrenchingly funny.
However, it’s the ending that tears me. Was it necessary? Did it have to be like that? There was plenty of foreshadowing, so it wasn’t a huge surprise. I’m not sure how I feel about it. Even now. I do know, though, that it—like everything else in this book—was written beautifully.
The Writing. Muriel Barbery writes exquisitely. There’s little I love more in a book (other than an engaging story) than a well turned phrase, a collection of words and sounds and meanings that touch the soul. There’s plenty of soul-touching here:
“I thought: pity the poor in spirit who know neither the enchantment nor the beauty of language.”
Which really goes along with what I’ve been saying about the beauty of language. This is the beautiful tied to the funny (of which there is plenty in this book):
“The only purpose of cats is that they constitute mobile decorative objects.”
Then there is wisdom in her words. I don’t agree with the myriads of philosophy that comes out, but I do like this tidbit about intelligence:
“But many intelligent people have a sort of bug: they think intelligence is an end in itself. They have one idea in mind: to be intelligent, which is really stupid. And when intelligence takes itself for its own goal, it operates very strangely: the proof that it exists is not to be found in the ingenuity or simplicity of what it produces, but in how obscurely it is expressed.”
The Elegance of the Hedgehog is an eccentric little book, turning this hotel into a miniature world populated with people who are flat and well-rounded, real and almost imaginary. Through this world, it offers a look into the everyday lives of others, giving you pause as you make assumptions about those who are blessed…and those who are not.
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It’s been a while since I read this book, but I remember enjoying it at the time and your thoughtful review brought it back to me.