Friday, June 20, 2014

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery

Muriel Barbery. The Elegance of the Hedgehog. New York: Europa Editions, 2008. 325 pages. ISBN 9780933372600.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog tells the story of middle-aged Renee and pre-teen Paloma. Renee is the concierge in an expensive condominium in Paris, and Paloma is the younger daughter of a couple who live in the building. Both are hiding their true thoughts and selves from others. Renee is a closet intellectual, reading history, literature, and philosophy in her spare time. Paloma hides her intelligence and is secretly planning her own death at the age of thirteen. Both Renee and Paloma regard almost everyone else with disdain, and are unhappy in their respective loneliness.

Everything changes when a new tenant arrives. Kakuro Ozu sees through both of their facades, and through his kindness they begin to see things differently. Mr. Ozu plays matchmaker between Renee and Paloma, and becomes a fixture in their lives as well.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is filled with amusing characters, including the other tenants and their pets. I found the constant criticism of the tenants to be a little overdone; do they really have no redeeming characteristics whatsoever? I also found some passages a bit tedious, e.g., when Renee was thinking about or discussing philosophy, but I was able to skim through those sections and focus on the rest of the book. In spite of these minor criticisms, I found the book to be engaging and fun. I read it for my book club, and it gave us a lot to talk about. It comes after another book, Gourmet Rhapsody, which follows another character who lives in the same apartment building.

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