A few years ago I had a book-a-day calendar on my desk that provided summaries and praise for each day’s title. There were many books from that calendar that made it onto that list and The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery was one of them. An interesting exploration of human interaction, class, and philosophy, The Elegance of the Hedgehog is surprisingly poignant for the simplicity of its setting and premise.
Renée Michel grew up in a poor home far from the city but has spent the last twenty years working as the concierge of a high-end apartment building in Paris, a position she took over from her husband when he died. At the service of the building’s wealthy tenants, Renée spends most of her days hiding her intelligence and observing the interactions of the people in the building with each other, with her, and with the world around them. Paloma is the younger daughter of a diplomat and his wife who live on the top floor. An intelligent and aware child, Paloma is also jaded and sees little about adulthood worth living so she decides she will kill herself at the end of her school term, giving herself some time to make additional observations and attempt to find if there’s something worth staying alive. The death of one tenant and arrival of a new one serves as a catalyst for both Renée and Paloma.
The idea of perception, recognition, and seeing beyond is prevalent throughout the novel, questioning what it is that makes us see what we see, who we see, and how it affects how we see ourselves. Renée and Paloma are both characters that see through the facades of those around them. Renée tries to be amused by it and plays into expectations, miming the actions and attitudes the others assume about her based on her class and role in their lives; they don’t see her as who she is because they have preconceived notions about who she should be. Paloma finds the facades, airs, and hypocrisy of the people around her frustrating and struggles with what she sees them extrapolating into her future and life in general. It is in the arrival of Monsier Kakuro Ozu—an older Japanese man able to see both Renée and Paloma for who they truly are—that the older woman and young girl find each other and develop an unlikely friendship of their own.
The novel’s structure jumps around a bit between Renée and Paloma’s different first person perspectives. This along with both narrators’ tendencies to wax philosophical can make it a challenging book to read. Short chapters often leave some of Renée’s scenes incomplete with the next chapter in her perspective picking up precisely where it left off, but often with an unrelated observation provided and analyzed by Paloma in between. The narrations themselves are sufficiently distinct to tell one character from the other and are presented in a prose that flows nicely, even as the subject delves into the depths of philosophy and abstract concepts like Beauty and Art. A lot of credit needs to go to Alison Anderson who translated the text from its original French.