The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a strange and, to me, wonderful novel.
One of two central characters and first-person narrators is Renée, a middle-aged concierge in an upscale apartment building. She revels in a private life rich in aesthetics and ideas but disguises her intelligence to avoid threatening the braggadocio among her rich, formally-educated and snobby clientele. Renée sees herself as “short, ugly and plump” and uses her appearance to complete the picture of a dull-witted, working-class service provider.
The second main character is Paloma, a precocious 12-year-old, who lives in the building managed by Renée. She’s obsessed with the philosophy of absurdism that leads the too-smart-for her-own-good youngster to the conclusion there’s no point in continuing to live. She’s also disgusted by her family’s obsession with material goods. Paloma sets her 13th birthday as the date she intends to commit suicide and set her family’s apartment on fire to focus her parents and sister on the important things in life. The only thing that might intervene is if she’s able to uncover something to show life has more to offer than the petty and pretentious.
The story unfolds almost entirely through the first-person voices of Paloma and Renée. Paloma’s journal entries pick apart over-inflated egos and under-utilized brains. Renée’s story is related through her self-talk and thoughts. Each narration captures Renée or Paloma’s observations and their reaction to those around them, most often rendered through their philosophic views on life and art.
Both main characters are critical of the building’s many class-conscious residents, which include Paloma’s parents. Paloma and Renée each sees beauty others are blind to because of their preoccupation with useless politics and quoting without understanding the works of popular writers. Renée, herself, represents a glaring blind spot. The building’s residents haven’t the insight or disposition to see past the slippers and net shopping bag to discover the intellectual and epicure beneath.
A third character, the cultured and sensitive Mr. Ozu, moves into the building creating a new dynamic that allows a cross-fertilization of Paloma and Renée’s thinking. Both Paloma and Mr. Ozu find that there is much more to Renée than her formal education and station suggests. The three catch glimpses of the light that shines from each other but is missed by everyone else.
Mr. Ozu appreciates the true Renée and seeks a relationship. Renée rebuffs him because her past leads her to believe people from different classes cannot have a lasting relationship. Paloma’s intervention gives Renée hope for a future with Mr. Ozu.
I was drawn to The Elegance of the Hedgehog because of the widely ranging reviews. One reviewer affixed one star because she could not cozy up to any of the characters. Others couldn’t fathom the need for someone to hide her intelligence. Others raved that it made them ponder life.
The difference, I believe, is best summed up by Barbery through a statement in the novel about the elegance of the hedgehog – a horrid and prickly surface but an unhurried sense of peace within. More pronounced in Europe than in North America, few places are free of the class divisions that Barbery captures so well in this novel.
Elegance Of The Hedgehog is wonderfully written and spins a multi-layered tale of the masks we all wear and the potential to discover beauty by those who seek it.
[Also posted on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1708266997]