The Elegance of the Hedgehog
by Muriel Barbery
Reviewed by Sheila Ashdown
Fifty-four-year-old Renee, protagonist of Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog, knows that she is "one of the multiple cogs that make the great universal illusion turn." She is -- by her own admission -- short, ugly, bunioned, and destined to forever play-act her role as concierge of a luxury apartment. To pull off the part, Renee affects a glassy, listless air, runs the television all day, and flaunts the appropriately tasteless "pauper's victuals" that the wealthy residents expect to see her eating. But the real Renee is anything but a stereotypical lowbrow; on the contrary, she is fierce lover of art, literature, philosophy, film, and fine food. She is also -- and many book-lovers can relate -- "a complete slave to vocabulary." She is, in short, everything she's not supposed to be.
And then there is Paloma Josse -- the novel's second narrator -- who lives on the fifth floor with her parents and older sister. Though Paloma and Renee are initially unaware of their kinship, they are both traitors to their class. At 12 years old, Paloma has already decided that adult life is not worth living, and thus prepares herself to commit suicide on her 13th birthday. Paloma narrates her portions of the story through two notebooks: "Profound Thoughts," in which she celebrates the "glory of the mind"; and "Journal of the Movement of the World," in which she details and mocks the shortcomings of polite society. Through precocious Paloma, the reader is privy to the absurd and never-ending struggle amongst the apartment dwellers for power and respectability.
Renee and Paloma are brought together by their mutual fascination with the building's new tenant, Kakuro Ozu, who sees through their carefully constructed identities -- which he does simply by refusing to believe that a concierge and a child are second-class citizens. Between the three of them, their appreciation for the whole of art -- literature, painting, film, even fine food -- allows them to transcend the walls of class, race, age, and gender. For the first time in her life, Renee experiences "the complicity of indestructible friendship" and "the release and openness and fluency one shares with another, in close companionship." It is a refreshing and redemptive view of the world.
The plot is light on what you might call "action." It's a novel of conversations and self-reflections, and takes place almost entirely within the confines of the apartment building. But it moves like a life, in the best possible way. What it lacks in drama, it more than makes up for by exploring the subtle moments that give our lives meaning: the delight that accompanies an unexpected friendship, a lovingly prepared meal, or a fine work of film or literature. We all have these moments, and Barbery has captured them and infused them with resonance.
But what is most impressive about this novel -- and why it will stay with its readers long after they've closed the book -- is that Barbery succeeds in creating an imaginary world whose beauty and message transcends to the real world. Just as the lives of Renee, Paloma, and Kakuro are enhanced by their engagement with art and with each other, this novel is a portal through which a reader can walk and find something better within themselves: hope that the people in our lives can still surprise and delight us.