Renee Michel, concierge of a wealthy apartment building in Paris, screens her true nature from the residents she serves. She is a woman whose prickly attitude and appearance belies her love of art and literature, someone who finds beauty in a camellia and is horrified when a comma is misused in a sentence.
Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside, she’s covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary – and terribly elegant. – from The Elegance of the Hedgehog, page 143 -
Paloma Josse, at age twelve, is plotting her own suicide before she turns thirteen and has decided to burn down the building in which she lives. But before she dies, she vows to write down profound thoughts in haiku. Highly intelligent and mature beyond her years, Paloma is fascinated by the beauty of movement such as a petal falling from a rose. She is also adept at observation…of the world at large and of her family whose dysfunction includes a depressed mother and a misguided sister.
When Kakura Ozu, a distinguished Japanese man, buys the apartment on the fourth floor of Renee and Paloma’s building the three are drawn together – people who appreciate art and simple beauty, and are seeking meaning in life.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog started slowly for me – in fact, I nearly stopped reading it at one point. But I persisted, and I am glad I did because Muriel Barbery has written an exceptional story about appearance, class, beauty, and the search for meaning in one’s life. Written in alternating viewpoints between Renee and Paloma, the book shows how an older lady from a poor background is not that different from a twelve year old being raised in a wealthy family.
We sit there for countless minutes holding hands, not speaking. I have become friends with a lovely twelve-year-old soul to whom I feel very grateful, and however incongruous this connection may be – asymmetrical in age, condition and circumstances – nothing can taint my emotion. - from The Elegance of the Hedgehog, page 289 -
The novel is rich in philosophy and thoughts about culture, art and literature. But it is the secret lives of its characters which drive the narrative and keep the reader turning the pages. Barbery’s writing is beautifully wrought and captures the small things in life which bring joy, wonder, and hope.
When of a sudden Old Japan intervenes: from one of the apartments wafts a melody, clearly, joyfully distinct. Someone is playing a classical piece on the piano. Ah, sweet, impromptu moment, lifting the veil of melancholy…In a split second of eternity, everything is changed, transfigured. A few bars of music, rising from an unfamiliar piece, a touch of perfection in the flow of human dealings – I lean my head slowly to one side, reflect on the camellia on the moss of the temple, reflect on a cup of tea, while outside the wind is rustling the foliage, the forward rush of life is crystallized in a brilliant jewel of a moment that knows neither projects nor future, human destiny is rescued from the pale succession of days, glows with the light at last and, surpassing time, warms my tranquil heart. – from Elegance of the Hedgehog, page 106 -
The Elegance of the Hedgehog was translated from the French by Alison Anderson. A sensation in France when it was published in 2007, the novel has won the hearts of Americans as well, which seems to validate Barbery’s theme that cultural differences do not preclude finding the beauty in simplicity. The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a simple story that explores complex ideas and leaves the reader fulfilled.