Book Review: The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Plot:

We are in the center of Paris, in an elegant apartment building inhabited by bourgeois families. Renée, the concierge, is witness to the lavish but vacuous lives of her numerous employers. Outwardly she conforms to every stereotype of the concierge: fat, cantankerous, addicted to television. Yet, unbeknownst to her employers, Renée is a cultured autodidact who adores art, philosophy, music, and Japanese culture. With humor and intelligence she scrutinizes the lives of the building’s tenants, who for their part are barely aware of her existence. 

Then there’s Paloma, a twelve-year-old genius. She is the daughter of a tedious parliamentarian, a talented and startlingly lucid child who has decided to end her life on the sixteenth of June, her thirteenth birthday. Until then she will continue behaving as everyone expects her to behave: a mediocre pre-teen high on adolescent subculture, a good but not an outstanding student, an obedient if obstinate daughter. 

Paloma and Renée hide both their true talents and their finest qualities from a world they suspect cannot or will not appreciate them. They discover their kindred souls when a wealthy Japanese man named Ozu arrives in the building. Only he is able to gain Paloma’s trust and to see through Renée’s timeworn disguise to the secret that haunts her. This is a moving, funny, triumphant novel that exalts the quiet victories of the inconspicuous among us.

Review:

First published four years ago and since described as “the publishing phenomenon of the decade”, this odd curio of a book is only just becoming more widely available in New Zealand. 

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is rather like a French film in that it’s very beautiful and meaningful but not an awful lot happens. The story is presented as the journals of an isolated older woman and a young girl. Renee is the bunioned, prickly concierge of a smart Parisian apartment building (the hedgehog of the title). She believes her role in life is to be poor, discreet and invisible and so hides her true self from the world, putting on a facade as a dumb, TV-watching, cassoulet-making concierge while secretly listening to Mahler, reading Tolstoy and watching Japanese art films. 

Upstairs lives the precocious 12-year-old Paloma Josse who has decided life is meaningless and plans to kill herself on her 13th birthday. But before she does so she challenges herself to find something on the planet worth living for. 

Barbery, a former professor, is interested in how philosophy can be applied to everyday life and so both these characters spend much of their time having profound thoughts. As a result, parts of the novel can be a slog to get through, particularly if you happen not to be quite as well read as the redoubtable Renee. There are entire pages debating the purpose of art and sections of prose so flowery that only a French writer could get away with them. 

The story moves along more briskly when one of the residents of the buildings dies and a Japanese man moves in and begins to melt the heart of the frosty concierge. 

Barbery has written a relentlessly interesting book filled with ruminations. She uses her story to celebrate art and deride French snobbery, yet at the same time manages to make it heart-warming, amusing and moving. But I think the real reason it’s been such an unexpected bestseller – more than 2.5 million copies have been sold worldwide so far – is its sheer originality. There’s nothing else I’ve read that’s been quite like it.

However due to the plot’s writing style this novel still receives a 3/5 Stars from me.

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