A lonely concierge in a French apartment complex, a young girl with suicidal thoughts and a Japanese gentleman could hardly have anything in common, or could they? The Elegance of the Hedgehog explores this premise intensely in an absorbing character study, devoting much of the book to the character’s thoughts.
Renee, the concierge, has spent years in her job, living on the premises, taking in packages and watering plants all while trying very hard not to be noticed. In her thoughts we find a woman of complex intelligence with whom others interact but do not really see. Believing that there are class distinctions between her and the residents, she keeps to herself. She creates the concierge they expect to see, knowing they would be uncomfortable with her true nature. She carefully maintains the illusion, while hiding her love of books, philosophy, art, music and learning.
Paloma, the 12-year-old girl, lives on the fifth floor. She is also intelligent beyond her years, able to read and understand books above her peers. In this young girl, we also find a complex and complicated existence, trying to hide her intelligence behind a mask of simply being ordinary. Seeing no reason to prolong this charade, she is determined to end her life on her 13th birthday.
Neither of these two characters interact with each other until the arrival of the Japanese man, Ozu, who takes over one of the apartments. Mr. Ozu sees behind Paloma’s mask, and together they unlock the secret Renee is so desperate to keep. Unbound by the social mores of the French aristocracy, he sees Renee as a person. Recognizing another with the same love of great literature and art, music and culture, he attempts to draw Renee out from behind the walls she has so carefully constructed.
This is not a book to be devoured in a few hours. The chapters are short, but the prose is a bit difficult. Sentences are long, with complex thoughts. There are a number of chapters devoted to what Ms. Barbery labels “Profound Thoughts”, which a book club could spend a year discussing.
Consider just this one line – “…pity the poor in spirit who know neither the enchantment nor the beauty of language.” Certainly this author has mastered the enchantment of language, enough to make me hungry for more. Above all, this book is a deep character study, with a very simple plot. I will be reading it again, taking the time to savor and consider the philosophies.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery ISBN 9781933372600