Book review: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

The Elegance of the HedgehogThe Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Madame Renée Michel is the widowed concierge of an apartment building in Paris. On the surface, and to the casual observer, she is the epitome of such an individual: cranky, dim, and interested only in her soap operas and her cat, Leo. In private, and apparent only to those who know how to see, she feeds her amazing intellect by devouring art, music, and literature while secretly looking down upon the less intelligent but vastly more wealthy social elite who inhabit her building. Since her husband’s death several years ago, Renée shares this side of herself only with her friend Manuela, a housekeeper in the building, and thus her social equal, although not her intellectual equal. Renée wants desperately to maintain her disguise of dull mediocrity. She is petrified of being found out; she cloaks the fear with pungent disdain to hide it even from herself.

Paloma Josse is the the youngest daughter of one of the families in Madame Michel’s building. Behind her disguise as a typical vacuous ‘tween, she is full of herself as only a 12-year-old can be, especially one who is vastly smarter than the rest of her family. She cannot see the point in life. She intends to commit suicide by burning down the building on her 13th birthday, but she keeps a journal in which she writes her observations and thoughts in case she finds some reason to continue living.

Renée and Paloma have much in common — their intelligence and the disguising thereof chief among them — but it takes a new resident to bring them out of their protective shells and, eventually, together.

When wealthy Japanese businessman Kakuro Ozu buys one of the apartments, the whole building is abuzz with gossip and speculation. Monsieur Ozu is polite but distant. A shared involuntary flinch at the misuse of language during a conversation with a fellow tenant brings Renée to Kakuro’s attention, and Paloma endears herself to him when she addresses him in schoolgirl Japanese while they are stuck in the elevator.

Alternately told by Renée’s inner dialogues and Paloma’s journal entries, the story of how these three disparate individuals become friends and confidantes is a marvel to discover. Renée begins to blossom, Paloma becomes open to possibilities: even the abrupt and unexpected tragedy that ends the story does nothing to diminish the hope and joy Kakuro brings to these two lives.

A beautiful story, beautifully told. And more than occasionally laugh-out-loud funny. I loved it.

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