This is a very French book, both in subject and in the style of writing. That is why it is interesting that the book is so successful worldwide. It is beautifully written and has a delicacy of touch that is charming. “The Elegance of the Hedgehog,” is a best seller in France and several other countries and is an accessible book that flatters readers with its intellectual veneer.
Rene is the concierge of a grand Parisian apartment building. She maintains a carefully constructed persona as someone uncultivated but reliable, in keeping with what she feels a concierge should be. But beneath this facade lies the real Rene: passionate about culture and the arts, and more knowledgeable in many ways than her employers with their outwardly successful but emotionally void lives.
Down in her lodge, apart from weekly visits by her one friend Manuela, Rene lives with only her cat for company. Meanwhile, several floors up, twelve-year-old Paloma Josse is determined to avoid the pampered and vacuous future laid out for her, and decides to end her life on her thirteenth birthday. But unknown to them both, the sudden death of one of their privileged neighbours will dramatically alter their lives forever.
The novel’s two narrators alternate chapters they are Renee and Paloma. Renee is a widowed concierge in her fifties who calls herself “short, ugly and plump.” She is a self-consciously stereotypical working-class nobody. She takes refuge in aesthetics and ideas but thinks life will be easier if she never lets her knowledge show. Even the slippers she wears as camouflage, are typical of her place in society. Paloma is a precocious 12-year-old whose family lives in the fashionable building Renee cares for. Paloma believes the world is so meaningless that she plans to commit suicide as soon as she turns 13. Renee’s story is addressed just to the reader, while Paloma’s takes the form of a notebook crammed with what she considers are “profound thoughts.”
Both create eloquent essays on time, beauty and the meaning of life, Renee with erudition and Paloma with adolescent gusto. Neither character realizes they share such similar views. They also share an interest in and affection for Japanese culture. Paloma adores reading manga, while Renée goes into raptures over an Ozu scene in which the violet mountains of Kyoto become a soul-saving vision of beauty.
It is the sharp-eyed Paloma who guesses that Renee has “the same simple refinement as the hedgehog,” quills on the outside but “fiercely solitary — and terribly elegant” within. Throughout the novel, these two narrators minds and engaging voices (translated by Alison Anderson) move the story along.
The lives of both characters perk up when the rich, charming and attentive Mr. Ozu moves into the building. His name alone is enough to tantalize Renee, and he does not disappoint her. His presence also brightens the book, adding emotion and an actual story. However, near the end, Renee and Paloma become friends and the author glides ahead even more buoyantly than before. Such philosophical fiction resolves some issues of life and death for its characters.
The shallower question of the international fate of this quirky French novel might also defy or reinforce just the sort of baguette and beret stereotypes Renee finds so obvious and so true: oh, those philosophical French! Personally, I did find the novel just a little too long and some of the allusions a bit too esoteric for ease of reading. It may well merit re-reading, but I doubt I will do so. However, I would read another book by Muriel Barbary.
Muriel Barbery (born 28 May 1969) is a French novelist and professor of philosophy.
Bio from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Photo by Elena Torre from Viareggio, Italia (Muriel Barbery) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.
Muriel Barbery is a most interesting woman. She was born in Casablanca, Morocco, Africa but raised in France. Now she and her husband live in Japan. She is a professor of philosophy, as a result of which this book is not only very French in attitude, but also peppered with philosophical theories.