The Elegance of the Hedgehog Author:Muriel Barbery We are in the center of Paris, in an elegant apartment building inhabited by bourgeois families. Rena', 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, Rena' is a cultured... more » 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 Rena' 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 Rena'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.« less
What a stunning, gorgeously-written book! I've placed it on my All-Time Top 5 List without hesitation. The narrative perspective switches back and forth between a cranky, secretly-erudite Concierge at a high-end French luxury building and the genius-but-equally-cranky 12-year-old daughter of one of the residents, a Socialist member of the French government. With equal parts Ignatius J. Reilly'esque laugh-out-loud outrage at the world & people's stupidity mixed with a survey of modern literature and key philosophical ideas, this elegant book covers everything from profound ideas to the profound ways that people hide - from each other and themselves. The sudden ending actually made me cry, which was when I realized how invested I had become in the characters.
I chose this book as our book club read last month. The reviews were spectacular but I found this book difficult to read at best. Unlike other reviewers, I didn't find the characters engaging in the least as well as snobby, whiny and pretentious. I usually devour this type of book but this is one of the very few I couldn't even finish reading it. Of our eight book club members, nobody enjoyed the read and few wanted to finish it. Perhaps we're simply not refined or educated enough, but half a star is already too generous in my opinion.
I really liked this one, although I did skip over a few of the more "abstract" of the tiny chapters. Paloma, the younger co-protagonist did come off as a tad too precocious at times, so I could understand folks disliking her for that reason; Renee, the other main character, wasn't nearly as over-the-top. Moreover, the supporting characters carry their own weight, not just two-dimensional props.
The book has been described as a "fable", but I'd say it's as much a parody, though there's a moral to the story.
It's not often there comes along a book whose denouement leaves the reader saddened, but not saddened, but this is one such book. It is an intriguing story of the inner lives of two persons, a 54-year-old widow who is the concierge of an apartment building in Paris, and a 12 and a half year old girl, the precocious daughter of one of the tenants. The concierge, Madame Michel, or Renee, has secluded herself from the larger world and its hypocrisies; the very intelligent pre-teen, Paloma, is secretly planning her rather dramatic suicide. Barbery uses interior monologues to acqaint us with the thoughts and feelings of the two. We also learn of the various tenants in the building, in particular, of the 'new' tenant, Monsieur Ozu, a highly cultured Japanese gentleman and scholar, who enters, briefly but significantly, the lives of both Renee and Paloma. Un livre charmant.
Powerful, powerful book. For the first 35 pages or so you'll be a bit bored wondering what is this book supposed to be about? Then like a piledriver it starts hammering, and you begin to laugh, to see the light, discern the flow, love the characters, put it together, understand, and in the very end, just cry big wet happy tears. And what a perfect title.