Book Review: The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery

The Elegance of the HedgehogIf you are a lover of the intricacies and nuances of the English language, grammar and correct punctuation, an amateur philosopher and enjoy a fairly lighthearted, interesting and emotional read then this book is for you.

It took me a little while to get into it, but to be fair that could have been down to my mood – sometimes I am just not feelin’ it when I’m trying to get into a new book.

The story dances between the musings of the two female protagonists:  the 54-year-old concierge of a Parisian block of luxury apartments, Renee Michel, and Paloma Josse, a precocious 12-year-old girl, the daughter of one of the most bourgeois families occupying one of the apartments.

Both women have more in common than first meets the eye. Renee is a closet intellectual; lover of Tolstoy, still life fine art and Mozart, an avid fan of Japanese cinema and someone who partakes in the delights of delicious Parisian food usually reserved for those far above her station in life. She believes that it is of utmost importance for her to maintain her lowly position in the pecking order of the world and ensure that none of the inhabitants of the apartments should ever suspect her passion for, and knowledge of, high brow culture; “Because I am rarely friendly—though always polite—I am not liked, but tolerated nonetheless; I correspond so very well to what social prejudice has collectively construed to be a typical French concierge that I am one of the multiple cogs that make the great universal illusion turn, the illusion according to which life has a meaning that can be easily deciphered.” Apparently, they would be scandalised and disgusted if they were ever to suspect this dowdy, old concierge of being even close to that of an intellectual.

In truth, there is also an element of her wanting to be left alone to her own devices, invisible, not to draw attention to herself because she is so afraid that if she tries to have more than what her lot in life has prescribed that she’ll fall prey to Fate’s vengeful hand. So she pretends to be far more stupid than she is, calculating dim-witted responses to questions and feigning ignorance as often as possible.

Meanwhile, Paloma is a 12 year old with an acute intelligence who feels that she is wise beyond her years and can see the world, and the people in it, for what it truly is – a terrible place that has allowed for ugliness to overcome beauty and misdeed to overcome honesty and love. She has decided that life is meaningless for someone of her intelligence and is making plans to commit suicide on her 13th birthday. “People aim for the stars, and they end up like goldfish in a bowl. I wonder if it wouldn’t be simpler just to teach children right from the start that life is absurd.”

Paloma herself loves Japanese works and culture – she writes in haiku and loves to read manga. She keeps two diaries, one called ‘Profound Thoughts’, which she intends to fill with as many recordings of her wide-ranging reflections on art, poetry, people, etc as she can before her 13th and suicidal birthday, and the other called ‘Journal of the Movement of the World’ to record her observations of the world around her. She has an incredibly cynical view of the world, and is always scrutinizing people around her, especially her own family.

Both women are keen and somewhat critical observers of the characters and habits of the occupants at 7 Rue de Grenelle, musing about the class system, the hypocrisy of the Parisian culture human nature, the keeping up of appearances and the personality traits of the people themselves.

They are brought together when one of the occupants dies and a cultured Japanese man who is seemingly immune to the expectations of the Parisian class system moves in. Monsieur Ozo and Paloma Josse meet in the lift and together decide that there is something not quite right with the concierge – her outward display of stupidity might be covering up a unique intelligence that no-one knows about. They decide that the concierge “has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside she is covered in quills, a real fortress, but … on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary — and terrible elegant,” and set about trying to draw her out.

At times the philosophical musings and examinations of language overshadow the main story, but overall it is a clever, intriguing appraisal of human nature tied together with a story of friendship and platonic love. It is raw, funny, beautiful and at times heartbreaking.

I give it 3 out of 5 stars.

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