The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Whenever books receive a certain amount of acclaim, I always worry that they will not live up to my expectations. It's sad, in a way, that when there's a great amount of buzz about a book, my first impulse is to doubt, but I've had my hopes crushed one too many times. So as much as I looked forward to reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog, I was a bit hesitant to actually pick it up. In the end, there was no reason to fear. This novel is utterly lovely and quite deserves all the praise it has received.

Muriel Barbery sets her novel in Paris at 7 rue de Grenelle, an upper-class residence of apartments, and the story is told from two perspectives. The first is that of Madame Renée Michel, who has been the concierge at 7 rue de Grenelle for twenty-seven years. Renée is 54, somewhat dumpy and nondescript. She exerts a great amount of effort in keeping up the appearance of the average concierge: gruff and ignorant, with a constantly-blaring television and a very fat cat. But despite this projection, Renée is an incredibly intelligent woman, an avid reader of fine literature and philosophy who is unwilling to be found out and recognized for her proclivities. She distrusts the wealthy and isolates herself into a very predictable existence, with a steady routine and one friend. She believes this is enough. Our other narrator is Paloma Josse, a precociously philosophical twelve-year-old resident of the building. Paloma is an introvert who has a tendency to hide from her family so she can be left alone with her thoughts, which she is recording in a journal, along with observations on the world and assessments of those around her. Since she has been disappointed in life and the people in it, she has come to the conclusion that it's better to die young rather than grow up into the kind of adult she sees around her, and so she is planning to commit suicide on her 13th birthday by setting the apartment on fire and taking a number of sleeping pills.

Both of these narrators are incredibly eloquent; Renée is a more touch formal and Paloma has a tendency to present tidy pieces of wit. The first half of the novel is taken up with their observations of various people in the building and musings on their own lives and reading, without any interaction between the two. About midway through the novel, though, both lives are changed when a new resident moves into the building: Kakuro Ozu is a wealthy and successful Japanese gentleman, which would normally slide him into the dismissible category for both of these narrators. But Kakuro is also an observant and thoughtful man, quickly aware of such unique characters as the intelligent concierge (who lets a Tolstoy reference slip in their first short conversation) and the quiet twelve-year-old (who reads manga and is taking Japanese at school). As Renée and Paloma form their separate friendships with Kakuro, they find a kindred spirit in each other, too. If anything, I wish that this coming together of our two narrators had happened a bit earlier, as I felt we didn't have enough interaction between them.

I must give great credit to the translator, Alison Anderson. Muriel Barbery writes in French, so Ms. Anderson plays a crucial role in this novel's appeal to an English-speaking market. I would recommend this book on the basis of its language alone. Yes, it's lofty and often philosophical, but I find that to be delightful. The ideas are refreshing and never dry (indeed, Renée at one time talks about the value of films such as The Hunt for Red October amidst her musings on Japanese films and philosophers). I frequently re-read passages to savor their charm, and certainly believe this is some of the most exquisite language that I've encountered this year. It's truly remarkable to be able to surrender to a well-formed character's voice taking you along on her thought process. Incredibly simple things become fascinating and you wonder if you could ever express things quite so beautifully as Renée and Paloma. These two ladies are utterly charming and while at times, they were somewhat unbelievable as real people, I found that reservation easy enough to cast off before I was delighting in both Renée and Paloma. Of course, I think that Renée was the one to truly steal my heart. Paloma is sweet, yes, but Renée really steals the show.

Ultimately, the book is wonderfully bittersweet, owed entirely to one's feelings about the characters, and I admit that it's been quite some time since I've cried at the end of a novel -- not just misty eyes, but actual tears. The language and the characters continue to drift into my thoughts. I've gone back to look at a few particularly memorable passages with a smile. So don't let the great reviews throw you -- they're all quite true. It's an elegant novel that quite deserves your attention. C'est magnifique.

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