The Elegance of the Hedgehog
By Muriel Barbery
Europa Editions, 2011
Madame Renée Michel, a concierge in a Paris apartment building, lives life in disguise. While learned, well read, culturally sophisticated and highly intelligent, every day she dons the blue-collar costume and mannerisms deemed typical of those in her line of work. Life, she believes, is easier inside her shell. To the wealthy patrons in her building she is, at best, a service and, at worst, invisible.
Paloma Josse, the 12-year-old daughter of wealthy residents of the building, lives life in disguise. While observant, intelligent, articulate and suicidal, every day she dons the schoolgirl costume and mannerisms deemed typical of those her age. Life, she believes is easier inside her shell. To her family she is, at best, ordinary, and at worst, inconvenient.
These two characters narrate The Elegance of the Hedgehog. From inside their respective shells, they give their disdainful views of the well-heeled residents of the building.
I have to confess to wanting to give up on this book early on. Barbery’s early chapters contain some self-indulgent displays of smarty-pants-ism. Philosophical theories, Dutch art studies and Japanese cultural references abound. My brain hurt from stretching back to recall long-forgotten university courses. My head ached from the many times I asked, “Should I look that up? Or move on?” (I moved on.) But it was our book club book, so I pressed on. About half-way through, Barbery got her intellectual offerings out of the way and engaged in the plot. Then I didn’t want to put the book down.
In the end, Renée discovers that life inside a shell is as smelly as the backed-up plumbing in her lodgings, and Paloma, well, I don’t want to give it away.
Read this book with a fully engaged brain and a search engine (or your university text books) close at hand.