This is a funny little book and I’m not sure what it’s about. In The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (translated from French by Alison Anderson) a concierge, Renee, looks after an apartment building in Paris inhabited by very rich people.
Most of the people who live in the building don’t notice Renee unless they want something and even then they barely condescend to see her. She goes on with her life, reading about philosphy, art, science and anything else that attracts her sharp and broad mind. It suits her to be unseen and to keep her erudition, which she believes inappropriate to her class, to herself. Her best friend is Manuela, who cleans in some of the apartments.
One of the inhabitants of the building is Paloma, a little girl looking for meaning in life but too intelligent to be taken in by the meanings offered to her by her family and culture. Then an elderly resident dies and someone new moves in. Kakuro immediately sees beyond Renee’s facade and gently pursues her.
It is an easy read and an absolute joy . The prose is elegant, the characters likeable, and the diversions on art and philosophy are interesting. But I’m not sure how well it works as a story. There is a reason beyond class that Renee doesn’t want to reveal her self-education but, while it is a perfectly good reason, it is dumped on the reader all in one go, late in the book. There’s no foreshadowing or hinting at a deeper fear of exposure. The feel of the book throughout is one of a very light touch, of delight in life in various ways and the tragic ending doesn’t quite work with it. I couldn’t accept the tragedy as presented and thus couldn’t be moved by it.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog tries to balance philosophical musing with telling a story. The musing is elegant and fascinating and works really well. The story suffers. But, I did enjoy it despite being frustrated by the ending. I would recommend it if you enjoy beautiful prose.
I’ve been wanting to read this. I always carry it around the bookshop with me and end up putting it back. Maybe I’ll give it another shot now.