Saturday, June 13, 2009
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
Published September 2008 by Europa Editions
Renee Michel is the 54-year-old concierge of a luxury Paris apartment building. Her exterior ("short, ugly, and plump") and demeanor ("poor, discreet, and insignificant") belie her keen, questing mind and profound erudition. Paloma Josse is a 12-year-old genius who behaves as everyone expects her to behave: a mediocre pre-teen high on adolescent subculture, a good but not outstanding student, an obedient if obstinate daughter. She plans to kill herself on the sixteenth of June, her thirteenth birthday.
Both Renee and Paloma hide their true talents and finest qualities from the bourgeois families around them, until a wealthy Japanese gentleman named Ozu moves into building. Only he sees through them, perceiving the secret that haunts Renee, winning Paloma's trust, and helping the two discover their kindred souls.
This felt like two books to me and it wasn't because the story alternates between narration by Renee and narration by Paloma. The first one-third plus of this book is Barbery introducing us to our two narrators by means of philosophical musings. It is very obvious that Barbery is a professor of philosophy. It is difficult going and, although it serves to give us a feel for Renee and Paloma, it is so slow moving I seriously considered giving up on this one before I hit the halfway mark.
That would have been a mistake because after that point, the story got going. I finally began to care for Renee and Paloma. Prior to that, I really didn't care for either of them--Renee goes to great pains to be the very person she feels the owners in the building will look down on then despises them for looking down on her.
Once Mr. Ozu arrives, things start happening and we really start to understand some of the things that Paloma and Renee have been discussing earlier in the book. I'm glad I stuck with this one. In the end, I really loved the book and got, let's be honest, a little emotional.