Hmm, what words could possibly help describe how much I’ve enjoyed the book? Let’s just say, as an avid reader and creativity-enthusiast, I like to fold pages in books when I find ideas, words, or phrases that are beyond extraordinary or get me nodding or loudly thinking “that’s so true”. This doesn’t happen so often. A good book would usually end up with three or four scars at its pages. But with The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, I have more than ten carefully folded edges.
The book narrates from two protagonists – a 54-year-old concierge who works (and resides) at a fancy, luxurious apartment in Paris; and a 12-year-old smartypants who lives in the building. The narration alternates from one to the other but their thoughts are united with a philosophical theme of life, beauty, and art. Paloma, the preteen daughter of a filthy rich parliamentarian and a hideously materialistic mother, is quite the talented and precocious little girl who sets out to openly admit to her exceptional intelligence. Through her diary, she writes of questions to the meaning of life, criticizes the frivolous and shallow lives of affluent individuals who fail to make any eloquent contributions to any conversations, and defines the essence of beauty and art in her own words. But, of course, because she’s only twelve, she hides her true side even from her family. Renee, on the other hand, constantly reminds herself that she is a concierge and as an insignificant human being in a grandiose building full of more “important” lives, she pressures herself to disguise her devours in notable literature, art, and music. The discreetness comes to an end for both when a new rich, Japanese tenant Monsieur Ozu moves into the building.
I was only able to grasp the theme of the book when I got to the last couple of chapters. I almost had a heart attack when I realized what the three hundred pages of text led to near the end. The Elegance of the Hedgehog isn’t much of a heavy philosophical novel but a modern day reflection of the inconspicuous among us. Although the book seems to focus on the daily lives of wealthy Parisians, there is a much compelling discovery of “life” underlying their lives. From simply describing a stem of rose, and (somehow) logically making a connection between grammar and life, every scene and every line invites us to look beyond the trees and at the forest. Barbery couldn’t have written it any better to provoke our interpretation of life, beauty, and art.
dee’s recommendation: 5/5