Review: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

5 out of 5 stars

This is a very subtle novel. It talks about a lot of important things and has a lot of philosophical mumbo jumbo. I’m often frustrated with that kind of thing. But woven throughout the obvious are subtle parallels. It’s interesting, because as I often have trouble deciphering or even retaining beautiful literary espousing of great thoughts, I felt incredibly smart on picking up on these other themes. As hindsight is 20/20, there is also a lot of foreshadowing that I missed because I was looking up the names of philosophers and artists I did not recognize.

The books begins with our main character reading about phenomenology. I had never heard of this word so I looked it up. It is the philosophical study of the structures of experience and consciousness. It asks two questions: What is the nature of human consciousness? What do we know of the world?

The story is told in a series of journal entries by two people and they tackle a lot of those questions. I liked that each POV had its own typeface. It was fitting, as the two people whose journals we are reading are very different. Renee is 54, the concierge of what I thought of as a block of condos – a massive house cut up into a series of luxury flats. She describes herself as short, ugly, plump with bunions and a bad hairstyle. I felt like she was experience – she’s lived her life and built her walls. Our other narrator, a 12 year old girl named Paloma, lives with one of the rich families at number 7, rue de Grenelle,  sees Renee in another light, and gives us the titular passage.

“Madam Michele has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside she’s covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog, a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary – and terribly elegant.”

Little Paloma, as you may have discovered, is pretty verbose. She’s clearly a savant, or an unrealistic character created to fit into a novel – but regardless, I really liked her. I felt that she was consciousness – a young, though intelligent one, somewhat raw and taking in all of her first human experiences, filtering them through her journal and trying to find a reason to keep on going, to keep being human. I liked that her physical appearance (pink eyeglasses, shoes that don’t quite match her clothing, and how Renee sees her as a little princess among swine) is fittingly young. Like I said, the two characters are very different but there are a lot of parallels in their journals. They ponder the meaning of life. Renee reads philosophy, Paloma’s sister studies it. Renee watches Japanese films and Paloma has an Asian fetish. We often read about the same thing happening from two different perspectives, because obviously, they live in the same building., but it’s never repetitive. One often picks up where the other’s knowledge left off. The one thing both have in common is hiding. The child of poor peasants, she lives in such a way to hide her culture, elegance and thirst for knowledge behind a curmudgeonly exterior, playing stupid tv shows loudly in the front room while she listens to Mozart and reads philosophical tomes in the back. Paloma loathes her bourgeois family – her mother whose been in therapy for 10 years and gobbles pharmaceuticals like candy, her sister who spouts mindless drivel she’s read in books, dresses like a poor kid and generally tries to make her little sister’s life a misery, and her blustering politician father. She plans to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday, after lighting the flat on fire. Besides her suicidal tendencies, she tries to hide her above average intelligence as well as she can, from her family and at school.

I had heard the book was a little hard to get into, but I found it charming and immediately was interested. Most of the chapters are from Renee’s POV. She knows a lot more about the people who live in the building, obviously. They are full of her thoughts on beauty, class, art, class, philosophy, Russian literature, music, class, in short, she’s really hung up on class. She can’t very well get away from it, as every day she must play the part of the poor, uneducated and cantankerous concierge to the rich people that look down their fancy noses at her. She’s also very observant, funny and sarcastic. She nails the foibles of her tenants so well. Even so, I found this a slow read. I couldn’t storm through it, and I put it down quite often. It felt more like I was savoring it than being bored though – until a bit halfway through when I did feel it begin to lag, and then here comes Monsieur Ozu.

There is a change of residence at number 7, rue de Grenelle. A handsome, wealthy Japanese man name Ozu moves in and completely remodels his unit. The whole building is abuzz with this new offering who comes in and disorders what has remained in stasis for so long. He befriends Paloma, as he is what she so longs for: he oozes peace and tranquility. (As I said, Paloma is obsessed with Asian culture and Renee watches Japanse movies.) He immediately sees that the concierge is so much more than what she shows on the surface, and Renee is put in a tailspin. She tries to ignore him for as long as she can. She feels her carefully built persona could fall apart. But slowly, chinks grow in the walls, she lets people in and then everything changes.

I really enjoyed this. The language is beautiful, the characters that we are supposed to like are likable, the ones we are set up to dislike are dislikable. We dislike them for the same reason that Paloma or Renee do. It’s funny and very sad at times. I guess I liked it because it asked what is the nature of human consciousness? What do we know of the world? Is the world just the few square feet we share with other humans in a building? What do we know of the consciousness of the person next door or down the street?

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