The Elegance of the Hedgehog
By Muriel Barbery
Renée Michel is the concierge at number 7 rue de Grenelle, a luxury apartment building in Paris. She is short, self-described as ugly, and can be onerous. She’s also brilliant. An autodidact, with interests in philosophy, art, and Japanese culture, she spends her days watching and ruminating about the building’s tenants. Ever careful to keep her secret hidden, she goes about playing the dumb concierge and scrutinizing others in her diary.
Paloma Josse is a precocious 12 year old girl who lives on the fifth floor of number 7 rue de Grenelle. She has come to the realization that life is not worth living and on her thirteenth birthday, she will end it all and, to punish her family for making her life such drivel, will burn the apartment. Much like Renée, she goes about her life hiding her talents from the world, finding it easier to just be plain and ordinary in terms of knowledge. She begins a diary of profound thoughts to convince herself that her plan is sound and explain why life is not worth living.
When a new tenant moves into the building, everyone’s life is changed. Ozu is Japanese and quickly finds a kindred spirit in Renée and also Paloma who both unknowingly share a deep interest in Japanese culture.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog is one of those rare books that makes you stop and look around. We move through life so fast that we sometimes don’t appreciate the people around us that we see everyday. Renée and Paloma are those two people. They’re both hiding from the world because they don’t believe that anyone can appreciate them and it’s sad to think that they’re hiding what is most important, not only to them, but to others. In a way they don’t want people to know who they truly are but when they find their lives intersecting, it becomes all the more wonderful.
The first 100+ pages of this book contain a lot of rather dry philosophy. I have never been one to read philosophy, so I will admit that some of the profound nature of there theories was lost on me and made me wonder when it would move on. When that change takes place, it happens fast, and you become fascinated by the characters in this book. Everyone with their own problems hurrying to get somewhere always passing Renée as if she were invisible and, in some cases, barking orders as if she were nothing more than a dog. Her observations are insightful and wonderfully funny.
When I finished, I felt sad that things at number 7 rue de Grenelle had changed the way they did. Renée, Paloma, and Ozu are immensely likable characters and they way they hide from everyone else is part of their mystique. You revel in getting to know them and how they react to the rest of the tenants.
While the beginning is a bit slow and sometimes dreary, I thought The Elegance of the Hedgehog was one of the best books I have read in a while. It’s witty, funny, and smart. Barbery’s writing style is wonderful and I have added Gourmet Rhapsody to my reading list which features characters from The Elegance of the Hedgehog.