The Elegance of the Hedgehog, despite being Muriel Barbery's second book, is her first book to have a wide release in the international market and has been on France's bestselling list for quite some time now. Even though its themes are somewhat lofty (philosophy, profound appreciation for the arts), the novel focuses more on how these themes influence the lives of the book's two main characters -- Renee and Paloma.
The hedgehog referred to is Renee Michel, a woman working as a concierge in one of Paris's upper class apartments. The metaphor is never implied: as Paloma would have it, Renee is like a hedgehog -- outside she may have spikes to guard her but her inner self is indolent much like a hedgehog. An unfortunate incident in Renee's childhood has caused this impenetrable bubble to form, only to be broken by a few words from an unlikely 12-year-old.
Barberry's novel, written using the alternating perspectives of Renee and Paloma, ultimately tells the reader how hard it is to keep up with appearances. The novel's tragic ending reminds us what happens if we hide underneath our spikes, failing to let people from knowing us and truly loving us. You see, Renee is an intellectual. She dabbles in philosophy by Husserl and complex ideas such as phenomenology. She's an avid reader of Russian literature. She loves watching Japanese cinema and ponders on the intricacies of language. Yet, despite her intellectual capabilities, she tries very hard to come off as the type people would expect from a concierge -- unaffected, bordering on illiterate, and simple.
Similar to Renee, Paloma hides the fact that she's way more intelligent than her years. And like Renee, she's a romantic. Paloma loves choir music and Japanese culture. She abhors the hypocrisy of the French upper class and prefers people who are undiplomatic, those who prefer to speak their minds. She thinks that grammar makes the language beautiful. She also hides a dark secret: she would commit suicide when she turns 13.
The arrival of a Japanese tenant, Kakuro Ozu, becomes the catalyst of the events in the second half of the novel. As Renee and Paloma both are fascinated by anything Japanese, they are naturally drawn to this refined gentleman who sees Renee and Paloma as they truly are. It is Ozu who introduces Renee and Paloma to each other, helping them see behind their veneer.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read. The novel's tragic ending does not take away the feeling of elation after reading Barbery's narrative. It truly is a French novel; one wherein you feel that nothing's really happening but you just keep reading nevertheless, propelled by the rich atmosphere and the anticipation of the characters' musings. The writing is far from being whimsical, as most novels of this theme tend to be. Barbery's language is precise and lets you in on all the wonderful details.
Read this book if:
- You think that nobody understands you.
- You feel that there's more to French literature than Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas.
- You want to get inspired.