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The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
Set in an upscale apartment/condo complex in Paris, Muriel Barbery takes us into the lives of two of the building’s residents. There is Renee; the short, plump and ugly 54-year old concierge. There is Paloma; the quick-witted and too smart for her age 12 year old. As these two women lead secret lives with hidden goals from friends and family, one man moves into the building to change it all.
Okay, I will be the first to admit that my synopsis paragraph is quite lame and doesn’t capture the essence or the actual plot of this book. This is not an easy book to sum up in just a few sentences. This is Barbery’s second novel, and the first to be translated into English from its original French. Each chapter alternates between Renee’s thoughts and Paloma’s journal entries. The novel is filled to the brim with philosophical thought, and commentary on social hierarchy and class status. There is the broad theme of double identities throughout all of the characters, but particularly in Renee and in Paloma, who both hide their intelligence from friends and family. For the first time in a long time, I made sure to read each and every word written in a book. I have a tendency to skim when I get bored with certain scenes or elements in fiction. But for this book, I couldn’t fathom passing over a single word and missing out on a deeper meaning in the actions of the characters.
I felt great sympathy for Renee, whose reasons for hiding her intelligence we learn towards the end of the book. As the concierge, she is considered to be of a lower class than the residents in the building she manages. She describes herself as:
short, ugly and plump, I have bunions on my feet and, if I am to credit certain early mornings of self-inflicted disgust, the breath of a mammoth.
Paloma, on the other hand, I found to be rather annoying in her woe-is-me attitude about life. But then, what twelve year’s life is not a woe-is-me moment? She makes no secret of her plan to commit suicide and burn down her family’s apartment on her thirteenth birthday. Most of her chapters/journal entries throughout the book are of Paloma looking for reasons to live, looking for those small and important moments in life, in nature, in art that would give a person a reason to want to stay a day longer.
The lives of both Paloma and Renee are changed when a wealthy Japanese man named Mr. Ozu moves into the building, bridging the lives of the two females and uniting the three of them in a unique relationship.
If it isn’t obvious, I loved this book. It reminded me heavily of traditional French authors such as Balzac and Flaubert. Particularly with the simple, yet brutal look into human nature. I cried like a baby during the ending, and it was quite awkward crying like a baby on a busy and filled train in Europe. For all the philosophers and philosophical thought Barbery shares through Renee, this book is approachable because above it, it is a story about people learning and observing other people.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog
by Muriel Barbery (translated by Alison Anderson)
Europa Editions, 2008
Book 18 of 2011
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