In a posh apartment building in Paris live two brilliant and somewhat cynical narrators. One is a 12-year-old girl whose family lives in one of the 4,000-square-foot apartments. The other is the concierge, 50-something Renee, or Madame Michel as she’s known to everyone. Because why in the world would the rich inhabitants need to know the concierge’s first name?
Paloma, the young girl, has every advantage in the world but wants to end it all by her thirteenth birthday. She has come to the conclusion that life has one inevitable course —”People aim for the stars, and they end up like goldfish in a bowl” — and since she’s already figured out that life is absurd and has no meaning, she is best served by ending it all before she gets to adulthood. Plus, more importantly, that way she can teach a lesson to the ludicrous people in her life, namely her parents and older sister, Colombe. In the meantime, since she’s incredibly intelligent but doesn’t want to stand out, she tries to “dumb down” her performance at school.
Renee comes from extremely humble circumstances, as is expected for any concierge, who essentially barely should be seen or heard, serving a basic but mute purpose. But she’s also incredibly intelligent and self-taught, reading great literature and philosophy, watching artsy Japanese films, and otherwise soaking up culture like a sponge. Like Paloma, Renee keeps her head down, making sure no one knows her true nature, and tries to appear as “typical” as possible so as not to stand out.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog emerges as both characters narrate, in journal-entry style. They chronicle the comings and goings of the tenants of the apartment building, providing wry social commentary on the lives of the rich and oblivious, an absurdity which is doubled by the fact that these characters progressively think they know something about real life. But most significantly, Renee and Paloma reveal their own true selves and their expectations that life won’t get any better than the slog they endure each day. But the reader knows different — there are some bright spots and, consequently, hope. They just are in a habit not to notice.
With the arrival of a wealthy Japanese businessman who manages to discover the true selves of both Renee and Paloma, the two start to see this hope, a little at a time. And the reader gets to enjoy and appreciate the small transformations until an abrupt change occurs at the end of the novel.
Muriel Barbery’s writing is brilliant. Her characters are not just intelligent and funny and supremely entertaining (a hilarious example is Renee’s two-page rant over the insult to the beauty of language that occurred when a tenant wrongly put a comma in the middle of a sentence), but they are sympathetic and all too human. Listening to them for 300 pages is not just deliciously fun for like-minded readers, but also enlightening and ultimately uplifting. Not enough can be said about the utter genius of The Elegance of the Hedgehog.
Rated: Moderate, for about four uses of strong language and some occasional use of mild and moderate language.