What is life for? And how should we live? Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog revolves around these two questions through two characters who live in the same apartment building. Paloma Josse, at 12, thinks she has discovered life’s racket and makes plans to avoid her fate. Renée Michel, the building’s concierge, has been hiding her intelligence from everyone in her life, disappearing into a stereotype to avoid notice. Nothing would have changed if Kakuro Ozu hadn’t moved in upstairs and upset the status quo.
Both Renée and Paloma are highly intelligent and well read. Unfortunately, neither feel they can express their intelligence. We learn Renée’s reasons later in the book. Paloma hides her intelligence because her family is so terribly banal; any attempt to speak up is quashed as rudeness. (To be fair, Paloma can be rude.) Over the course of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, we see how similar the two are. At the beginning of the book, they seem very, very different.
When we first meet Paloma, she is planning her suicide and wants to burn down the apartment building. Her reasons for suicide are not the usual ones. Instead of depression or bullying or drug use, Paloma just doesn’t want to grow up and turn out like all the other adults she meets. It’s not a particularly good reason, but Paloma doesn’t have anyone in her life who understands her. She just doesn’t see any point. Paloma struck me as a person who has spent so much time in her own head she never learned empathy. She irritated me for most of the book and I wanted to smack her upside the head with Man’s Search for Meaning. Life does have meaning, you little twerp. You just have to find the things and people that make it meaningful for you.
Renée, on the other hand, does have things that make her life meaningful. She reads philosophy and criticism. She loves Tolstoy. (Her cat is named Leo.) She loves art and music. She just hides it all from everyone because she doesn’t want to be noticed. She works hard to maintain her cover as a slightly stupid but competent concierge while the rich people in the building care on with their self-absorbed lives. If The Elegance of the Hedgehog had been about Renée only, I think I could have fallen in love with it.
After one tenant dies and his apartment is sold to a Japanese man, the people in the building are shaken out of their routines. Ozu is perfect, as Barbery portrays him, and it isn’t long before he reaches out to Renée and Paloma. The plot moves slowly in this book. Much space is given over to Renée’s musings about art and literature and her role or to Paloma’s philosophizing and psychoanalysis of her family members and their friends. I’m still not sure if I’ve decided if the book is slightly pretentious or just a little too intellectual.
This might make it sound as though I didn’t like The Elegance of the Hedgehog. This isn’t true. I really enjoyed Renée and Ozu made me smile. Once the characters started to change, I was much more invested in the book. I’m not sure why the book was so wildly popular when it came out, though. It has some problems with pacing and the ending…well, to say more about that would ruin the book. I recommend this book, but with some caveats.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration.