The Elegance of the Hedgehog

My cousin Andrea recommended Muriel Barbery's novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog to me and, having just finished the book, I couldn't be happier to have received her suggestion. Barbery's novel is a delightful and satisfying read full of unassuming depth. The story itself is told from the point of view of its two main characters, Renee, a Parisian concierge who painstakingly attempts to hide her high taste for art and culture as well as her intelligence behind a facade of soap operas and grumpiness, and Paloma, a twelve year old occupant in Renee's building who is both wise and intelligent beyond her years despite the debilitating impact of a family that fails to understand her and her own efforts to mask her true intellect.

Though the two lead distinctly separate lives for the majority of the book, Renee and Paloma are strikingly similar characters, kindred souls separated by 40-some years, social status, and five apartment floors. With Renee, readers are introduced to a world of great literature, feline companionship, and musings on the gross disparities between the moral character, intellectual capacity, and acquired wealth of members of Paris' highest and lowest classes. Though Renee finds solace in her bi-weekly tea with Manuela, the apartments' Portuguese cleaning lady, her preoccupation with art and culture finds an outlet in a new and discerning tenant on the fourth floor.

Paloma's story begins with her vow to burn her family's apartment and commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday. Driven by despair at the lack of beauty and perfect movement in the world, Paloma records profound thoughts and movements of the world in an effort to make certain that there is nothing worth living for. Though her narrative seems a morbid one, it is actually full of insight and humor, the deliberations of a child with excesses of wisdom and intelligence on the cusp of her teen years. Similar to Renee, Paloma's vast mental capacity is the primary source of her struggles in life but also a most crucial aspect of survival and escape.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a quirky book, amusing and engaging, littered with philosophical ponderings, subtle literary references, a dose of social satire, and the heartbreaking reality of life behind a facade. Barbery brings a remarkably unique voice to the table and spins a simple but elegant tale, not unlike the elegance of the very animal from which this book takes its name.

The only reservation I have with Barbery's novel is that it was over all too soon. I will admit it was a bit slow to start - I was extremely interested from the get-go but felt that Barbery made readers wait quite a bit before the story began to develop. Once things are truly happening for Renee and Paloma, however, I was sad to reach the last page and put this one down. Within The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery constructs a marvelous Parisian tale that proves entertaining, thought-provoking, and bittersweet.

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