The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
This book was a pleasure to read, with gorgeous writing, wonderful characters and a surprising, but beautiful, ending. I loved it and truly hated to see it end. The title seems strange at first but becomes quite clear, and rather touching, later on.
Renee is the 54 year old concierge of a Paris apartment building, the apartments of which are owned by wealthy, haughty, dysfunctional individuals and families. Renee hides her intelligence and her love of literature from the residents because she feels she should play the part expected of someone in her low position. She has a good friend in Manuela Lopes, a maid for one of the apartment owners and who Renee describes as a true aristocrat. "What is an aristocrat? A woman who is never sullied by vulgarity, although she may be surrounded by it." Renee and Manuela meet every Tuesday for tea. "We laugh and converse....about one thing or another, in the calm space of an old friendship."
The other main character is 12 year old Paloma. She and her family - mother, father and sister - make one floor of the apartment building their home. Paloma is "an exceptionally intelligent child" trying to be normal and finding it "really takes an effort to appear stupider than you are". Disenchanted with living as she has experienced it, she has a plan to end her life on her thirteenth birthday.
Their stories unfold gradually. They barely know each other in the beginning, but circumstances bring them together and they begin to understand each other, each eventually finding in the other a "kindred spirit". Gently helping them both become who they really are is Monsieur Ozu, the middle aged man who recently bought, and - causing quite a stir among the residents - spent enormous sums of money renovating, his new home on the fourth floor.
There is a great deal of beauty and truth in this book, and it is gracefully written. From believing there is no meaning to life at all, Paloma learns to look for the "odd moment of beauty", the "always within never." (That phrase "always within never" might not mean much till you read the book, but afterwards you'll probably find yourself thinking and saying it often.) Renee learns that there's no need to pretend to be anyone but who she is. She finds freedom in simply being...Renee.
I love Muriel Barbery's writing. It is clear, but not spare, and utterly authentic. It is emotional, but never wallows in emotion. It's refreshing to read an intelligent book that addresses, with great balance, both the head and the heart.
Those who read for the love of an intricate plot should know that this book is character driven with no dramatic conflicts or mysteries, no crimes or passionate love stories. The plot is in the evolving of Renee and Paloma's personalities, what they discover about themselves and each other, and how they reach for, and find, beauty in their lives.
I loved it, loved it, loved it. I'll read it again because, to quote a line from the book, "one really should over-indulge in things that are this good". I wonder if her other books could possibly be this good. I'd love to hear from anyone who has read them. And let me know what you thought about this one too. Did you love it? Hate it? Not care?
If you haven't read it yet, I enthusiastically recommend it!