The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
Translated from the French by Alison Anderson.
Get past the prickles in this novel by Muriel Barbery, and there is a charming story underneath. It’s told from the alternating viewpoints of Renée, a widowed concierge who has a love of philosophy, cinema and Tolstoy, and Paloma, an incredibly erudite twelve year old who dreams of committing suicide before she’s thirteen.
In between learning about how rich Parisians live we get a lot of philosophy from both Renée and Paloma which make both of them difficult and prickly to get to know at the start. Renée hides the fact that she is clever, always pretending to be the frumpy, grumpy old concierge, but even she is able to alight from her hidden lofty highbrow perch and share gossip, tea and cakes with her only friend Manuela who cleans for some of the apartment owners.
Then, about halfway through the novel, everything starts to change when an apartment is sold and a Japanese gentleman moves in. He instantly sees through Renée’s facade and gradually they strike up a friendship which we hope will lead to more. He befriends Paloma and Manuela also and then the novel ends with a stunning twist that will surprise you.
Although a bit heavy-handed with all the Philosophy at times, there is a lot to like in this novel. There are laughs – when Renée and her dying husband go to the cinema one last time together, you expect them to choose a classic French movie, but … no, I can’t tell you, it would spoil the joke. The scenes where Renée is getting ready for her date with Mr Ozu are as frothy as in any teen comedy, and the other inhabitants of the apartment block are stereotype haute bourgeoisie characters. Yet there is pathos too, and in the finish I was wiping away a tear and not wanting the novel to end.
The only shame is that the first half is rather slow, and the second too fast – but this French publishing phenomenon from Gallic Books was well worth reading.
Source: Own Copy. Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Gallic Books 2008. Paperback, 320 pages.