The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
Renee Marchel is a 54 year old woman who is the concierge of an upper-crust apartment building in France. We are introduced to Renee in all her self-described frumpiness as she tells us:
“I am a widow, I am short, ugly, and plump, I have bunions on my feet and, if I am to credit certain early mornings of self-inflicted disgust, the breath of a mammoth. I did not go to college; I have always been poor, discreet, and insignificant. I live alone with my cat, a big lazy tom who has no distinguishing features other than the fact that his paws smell bad when he is annoyed. Neither he nor I make any special effort to take part in the social doings of our respective species.”
But there is so much more to Renee. She is also interested in philosophy, art, literature, music, foreign films, and the Japanese tea ritual among other things. She prefers to hide her cultured tastes behind society’s stereotypes for her class because she knows that no matter what she will never fit in. Renee’s best friend is Manuela, the Portuguese maid for most of the building’s residents. With Manuela she is able to share some of her inner joys and be more herself. But the rest of the world is kept at a discreet distance.
Paloma Josse is a highly intelligent 12 year old who lives with her well-to-do parents in one of the apartments. She works hard to make sure the world around her doesn’t have any idea how intelligent she really is. Paloma loves to hide away from the world, reading manga, and journaling about her philosophy on life, and the human condition. She believes adults are always foolishly striving to be adult, when they really have no idea what life’s all about and how to get along in the world. As she writes in her journal:
“Life has meaning and we grown-ups know what it is, is the universal lie that everyone is supposed to believe. Once you become an adult and you realize that’s not true, it’s too late.”
“We think we can make honey without sharing in the fate of bees, but we are in truth nothing but poor bees, destined to accomplish our task and then die.”
Paloma sees the world around her as cruel and ugly, and she plans to commit suicide on her 13th birthday.
Both Renee and Paloma encase themselves in a public persona that hides their true identities. Their observations on those around them are so intuitive yet they are not sure what to make of the world. Neither of them feels that they would be accepted for who they truly are. A very interesting look at the metaphorical hedgehog that I believe exists in all of us to some degree.
When a long-time resident of the apartment building dies, a new resident moves in. Kakuro Ozu is a cultured Japanese businessman whom everyone is immediately curious about. Upon arrival, Kakuro immediately sees behind the facade of Renee and he watches her carefully. He knows she shares a passion for Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and he approaches her about it. Renee is very put out that Kakuro can see through her “outer spines” as it were, and she doesn’t know how to react.
As friendships blossom between these three, Renee and Paloma begin to see more beauty in the world around them.and they start to imagine what role they might play in that world.
I wasn’t sure what to make of this book at first and it really took me quite some time to get into it. I was put off by all the cynicism that both Renee and Paloma exhibited. Perhaps because I have enough of my own! It’s not a comforting book, but it had definite moments of beauty. For me it was a book that very slowly crept in, and I found myself changing my mind and thinking “this is good, this is really getting good,” then the end comes along and it really smacks you in the face! My initial reaction was to give the book 3 stars, however the more I think about it, the more I like it. I may be thinking about this one for quite some time.