The Elegance of the Hedgehog
by Muriel Barbery
The storyline of this novel is fairly simple, its prose and ideas are anything but. The first narrator is Renee, a 54 year-old concierge of a rich Parisian apartment building. She does a good job of acting out her role in public as the uncultivated nonentity that her wealthy residents expect her to be. But she hides from the world a secret -- Renee is highly intelligent and cultured and philosophical. She reads Russian literature, rents Japanese films, delves into philosophy, pores over Dutch Golden Age painting, and thinks profound thoughts about Art and beauty. The second narrator is a twelve year-old girl who lives in the building, wise beyond her years, who is determined to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday. The lives of both of these females change when a new resident moves into a vacant apartment.
Reading this book is more akin to reading a treatise on philosophy and Art and nature and society, presented from two view-points, two kindred spirits who are separated by age and class. I must admit that some of the grand ideas and statements went over my head. I must also admit that this book made me cry. For me it was part heartbreaking but also part inspirational. Take time to appreciate beauty in everyday life -- not only a Vermeer painting on a museum wall, but also an especially moving melody or poignant turn of phrase or perhaps a completed hot-off-the-printer tax return that burns your hands. Simple pleasures.
Two additional notes:
1. This novel was quite popular in France in 2007 and was translated from the French last year.
2. It reminds me to one of these days pick up History of Beauty and perhaps its Ugly counterpart.
4 out of 5