In The Elegance of the Hedgehog, a lot can happen when a middle-aged concierge and a precocious twelve-year-old girl connect thanks to the influence of a retired Japanese businessman. The fact that both the widow and the girl are well read does nothing to assuage the deep existential angst they suffer from as they pretend they are as shallow and uninformed as everyone else. In less-skilled hands, the story would be maudlin. But I found myself often laughing at the sheer absurdity of the situation.
Despite my enjoyment of this well-crafted work, I couldn’t help but wonder if, in the real world, intelligent people are doomed to a life of sadness. The concierge Renée is friends with a Portuguese woman who is more wily than smart, and they do enjoy their afternoon chats over tea and cookies—the one bright spot in Renée’s life. But it’s the girl—Paloma—who doesn’t seem to have anyone, least of all her older sister. And because of this, she is determined to end it all—dramatically. It strikes me that poor people do not have time for such fantasies.
There’s a lot at play in this engaging book, which is mainly a satirical poke at wealth and privilege. The Japanese businessman, Monsieur Ozu, seems to be the antidote. He has taken up residence in the upscale apartment building recently and brings with him a sense of calm beauty. Though privileged himself, Ozu seems to retain genuine humanness that sees beyond rich and poor, well read and illiterate. Thank goodness for that.
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The phenomenal New York Times bestseller that “explores the upstairs-downstairs goings-on of a posh Parisian apartment building” (Publishers Weekly).
In an elegant hôtel particulier in Paris, Renée, the concierge, is all but invisible—short, plump, middle-aged, with bunions on her feet and an addiction to television soaps. Her only genuine attachment is to her cat, Leo. In short, she’s everything society expects from a concierge at a bourgeois building in an upscale neighborhood. But Renée has a secret: She furtively, ferociously devours art, philosophy, music, and Japanese culture. With biting humor, she scrutinizes the lives of the tenants—her inferiors in every way except that of material wealth.
Paloma is a twelve-year-old who lives on the fifth floor. Talented and precocious, she’s come to terms with life’s seeming futility and decided to end her own on her thirteenth birthday. Until then, she will continue hiding her extraordinary intelligence behind a mask of mediocrity, acting the part of an average pre-teen high on pop culture, a good but not outstanding student, an obedient if obstinate daughter.
Paloma and Renée hide their true talents and finest qualities from a world they believe cannot or will not appreciate them. But after a wealthy Japanese man named Ozu arrives in the building, they will begin to recognize each other as kindred souls, in a novel that exalts the quiet victories of the inconspicuous among us, and “teaches philosophical lessons by shrewdly exposing rich secret lives hidden beneath conventional exteriors” (Kirkus Reviews).
“The narrators’ kinetic minds and engaging voices (in Alison Anderson’s fluent translation) propel us ahead.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Barbery’s sly wit . . . bestows lightness on the most ponderous cogitations.” —The New Yorker
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