“The Elegance of the Hedgehog”: a rare and subtle treat from Muriel Barbery

How do you imagine Paris? I think of the city of lovers, sophisticated women dressed with style, bridges over the Seine, the Louvre, artists sipping wine, writers gathered at coffee houses, and so on. All those may be available a few blocks away, but the fascinating characters in  Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog could be living in any city. Locked in by loss, disappointment, and deeply-held cynicism, Renee Michel and Paloma Josse keep themselves apart from the world, observing others with wry, intellectual criticism.

Renee  is the middle-aged concierge of an elegant Paris apartment house. She has adopted an intentionally exaggerated version of the stereotypical dress, demeanor, and behavior of a concierge, but behind that mask she is intelligent and educated. She disdains the self-important behavior of most of the tenants, but she is also sympathetic to those who are lonely or suffering. Paloma Josse is the 12-year-old daughter of wealthy parents, residents of the same apartment building. Like Renee, Paloma is far more intelligent than the people around her realize, but she also hides her thoughts and feelings behind a mask.

The novel is narrated by these two characters (who know each other only superficially). It is cleverly written and full of philosophical and intellectual musings. I’ve made the book sound very serious, and it is, but it is also laced with comic scenes and quirky characters. Not in the least plot-driven, it is meditative and inward-searching. I am really amazed (but delighted) by how popular it is, and I thoroughly recommend it to any who enjoy well-written novels with good character development. Not for the impatient, Hedgehog is indeed a rare treat nonetheless.