The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery is a surprising novel, that stays with you months after finishing. Set in a chic apartment building on the Left Bank in Paris, the novel is narrated by two seemingly different narrators. The first is the apparently surly, middle-aged concierge Renée Michel, the second is the precocious, far too clever for her own good twelve-year-old Paloma Josse.
Renée lives on the ground floor, and is responsible for the maintenance of the apartment building. Over many years as concierge, she has carefully cultivated her persona as the typical French concierge, uneducated, grumpy, rude and above all invisible. However, she has a secret life. Far from being slow-witted and unappreciative of true beauty, Renée has read through the greater part of the offerings of western philosophy, she has become a conessieur of fine cuisine, she has developed a taste for great art and literature, most of all she loves the great Russian novels of Leo Tolstoy.
Paloma, on the other hand, lives on the fifth floor with her family. She is the daughter of an important left-wing politician father and a ‘Flaubert quoting’ mother. She is well read and intelligent, and is frustrated by the apparently meaningless existence of all those around her. She keeps two journals, one the ‘Journal of the Movement of the World’ the other called ‘Profound Thoughts’. She is endeavouring to discover the essence of what makes life worth living.
Over the course of the book, and the introduction of a new resident in the form of a wealthy Japanese businessman with a mutual love of the arts, beauty and Anna Kerinana, Renée and Paloma discover that the secret to life and happiness is to find people who really see you, and who are more than okay with who you are. The essential lesson is that while it might be ‘safer’ to hide, and cut ourselves off, we can not become complete as human beings without other people.
This book, quite rightly, has been a worldwide best-seller, translated into several languages. It is extremely popular on the ‘book club circuit’ having plenty of themes and issues worthy of contemplation and discussion. Above all this book is very French, hardly surprising since the author is French, and it was originally published in French. What I mean is that this has a very French way of thinking. The small, insignificant and ordinary are given a prominence and a dignity I rarely come across outside of French art, whether literature, film or painting.
I can not stress how much this book affected me. I HIGHLY recommend this book.