Alice in all of my reviews. But last time her review convinced me to read Ready Player One and this time she GAVE me (or I won it, whatever) The Elegance of the Hedgehog so how could I not mention her again? Had to be done.
I kept hearing about Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Headgehog but I didn't really know much about it. I knew it was French. The cover lead me to assume there was a precocious child involved. And that's really all I knew. But that didn't stop me from wanting to know more.
So here's the actual plot. Renee Michele is the concierge* at this super upscale apartment building in Paris. She's very smart but chooses to hide her interests and intellect so she'll be left alone but the pretentious and bourgeois tenants. She narrates the majority of the story which is nice, but there's a second narrator, twelve-year-old Paloma Josse. Paloma also hides her extreme intelligence also to avoid standing out so you can tell these two are going to find each other. BUT they need something to bring them together and that comes in the form of a new resident Kakuro Ozu, a refined Japanese businessman who sees Renee's and Paloma's true selves.
It took me some time to get into it and connect with the characters, but once the Ozu showed up I was hooked. So I guess I needed Ozu to bring me together with Renee and Paloma. He's that fantastic, is what I'm saying. He's a gentleman, kind to all of the tenants, but he really connects with Madame Michele. He breaks through her shell and shows her that she can actually relate to another person.
There's a lot of talk about philosophy and art and literature and also some Blade Runner. There are a lot of lines I could see ending up in a book of quotes. To the point where it sometimes seemed Barbery was more concerned with coming up with memorable lines than staying with the story. I can't decide if that's a bad thing or not. The story is still there, it's just sometimes hidden behind the eminently quotable moments.
I should correct when I say it took me some time to connect with the characters. Because I never really connected to Paloma. She's a little annoying, a little pretentious, and a lot tween angsty. A lot. This may seem like a spoiler, but it comes up very early so don't worry, nothing is ruined but she wants to kill herself on her thirteenth birthday. Because life is meaningless and she can't take the "vacuousness of bourgeois existence." And I'm pretty sure you're allowed to smack people for saying things like that. Not the killing herself part but the Cure-lyric-ness of her speech. PLUS she doesn't just want to kill herself but she wants to do it by burning down her apartment (while her family is away). Because why just kill yourself when you could take down an entire building or even entire block because who knows how close these buildings are. I mean, how can they really stand the "vacuousness of bourgeois existence"? I was happy the majority of the book is from Madame Michele's point of view.
I feel like I'm ending this on a negative note, but that's just because I didn't like Paloma. That doesn't mean I disliked the book. Or even that I wish Paloma was less...Paloma-y. She worked in the story, even if I couldn't stand her. And I liked Renee. And loved Ozu. It was too bad he didn't show up until about 1/2 way through the story. But that's OK because I just appreciated him all the more.
Overall the book is good and philosphy-y and French. So thanks Alice!
*I didn't realize concierges are things at places other than hotels. So the more you know.
Title quote from page 148
Barbery, Muriel. The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Europe Editions, 2006.