WARNING: For those of you even mildly interested in checking out this book, my review is going to provide tremendous spoilers. So, you know, just a warning.
For those of you still laughing over the title, get over it. That’s basically the only laughable thing in this book.
Yes, The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a book, written by Muriel Barbery (original language is in French). And, quite honestly, this is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time (especially considering it was translated).
The story tells of a fifty four year old concierge of an upscale Parisian apartment building, 7 Rue de Grenelle, which is considered one of the most elegant streets in Paris.
Madame Michel, as the tenants refer to her, is the basic conceierge defined by society: she watches soap operas, cooks foul smelling cabbage casseroles, and owns an extremely fat cat.
Or, so they think.
Renée Michel is a discreet autodidact with literature, philosophy, and the arts. She, who has never obtained a university college, or even a proper primary school education, has read the works of Marx, Tolstoy, and Husserl. Appreciative of arts such as Vermeer, 17th century Dutch paintings, and the music of Henry Purcell and Gustav Mahler, Renée considers the wealthy tenants of the building her inferiors in every way, except for material wealth.
Thus, she lives a life of seclusion, acting unintelligent and dim for the peace of the tenants, and secretly drowns herself in Art at the back of her little room.
On the other hand, there is Paloma Josse. She is part of one of the eight family residents in 7 Rue de Granelle. A child of twelve with an extraordinary IQ, she is repulsed by her family and fellow neighbors, and decides to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday. Added to that, she’ll burn the house down. Delightful little figure, isn’t she?
So we have our two main characters, both who are disgusted at the social hierchy established by people with too much money and time. They are both underappreciated, and hide their true talents from a group of ignorant baboons who have too much arrogance shoved up in their faces that, if such talents are revealed, it’ll only be deemed useless with the unwanted attention it’ll bestow.
The door opens to welcome Kakuro Ozu, the new Japanese tenant who, unlike the other adults, seems to be capable of seeing through Madame Michel’s cover and coaxing out respect from Paloma.
Since I don’t really want to give away the ending, I’ll just finish here raving about the book.
This book is spectacular. With Madame Michel’s bitter humor, Paloma’s mocking of intellectuals, and just simple stories in between, you find yourself confronted with an elegance that only people like Madame Michel can define. The story is told in first person, switching for Paloma’s journal entries and “profound thoughts,” to Renée’s more novelistically told first person. Although the main characters are fascinating and appreciative, I find myself drawn to the minor characters as well. The character development is well thought out, with symbolism heavily applied through this book.
To sum it up: five stars, a must read, etc.
Oh, and if you want to read another one of Muriel Barbery’s translated works, look for Gourmet Raphsody. Another delightful read.
The original French version