I’ve managed once again to steer my bookclub to something already on my shelves MUAHAHAH. There was a lot of talk about this one when it first came out and people were polarized: they either love it or found it extremely annoying. I’m on the Love It Team. It’s not exactly a 5, but a solid 4. I’m also partial to my edition’s cover
“The Elegance of the Hedgehog” isn’t strong on plot, in fact, nothing really happens at all until the last 50 pages. Even the entrance of the Handsome Stranger comes very late in the story. Until then, it’s all about the first-person musings of the two main characters. I’m rarely willing to read only meditations for chapters on end, but it’s different when the characters are so interesting.
There are only two narrators: Renée Michel and Paloma Josse. They both live in the same luxury apartment building in Paris, but Renée is the middle-aged concierge and Paloma is the 12-year old daughter of one of the tenants.
Renée is a closeted intellectual. Over the past decades she cultivated a careful persona of low-class stupidity. She uses little tricks that fool everyone around her because (and this is a big theme in the book) no one is really looking. She buys delicate food and bags it below the junk everyone expects her to eat (which she then feeds to her cat) and she leaves the TV on in her living room while she retires to the back room to read a good book or watch art cinema.
Paloma is a gifted kid who no one understands. In a way, she’s a closeted intellectual too, because in her family it’s her sister who’s “the smart one” as well as “the social one”, while Paloma likes quiet and solitude. She’s not a happy kid and has decided – very rationally, with no fuss – to set her apartment on fire on her 13th birthday (while making sure no one is home), and then kill herself.
Both narrators rule over alternated chapters, consisting mostly of their thoughts on books, beauty, art, camellias, grammar, the people around them, and philosophy (the real stuff, quoting Kant and Descartes). Around these complex mental lives, the building’s other inhabitants behave in their usual snobbish and generally superficial way, with occasional glimpses of humanity. It becomes very interesting and slightly voyeuristic to see their comings and going trough the eyes of an intellectual concierge and a sharp 12-year-old.
All is business as usual at 7 Rue de Grenelle, when a mysterious Japanese man buys one of the apartments. He immediately sees through Renée’s façade (a careless Tolstoy quotation on her part – great scene) and makes friends with Paloma. He’s a disruptive element to the whole building, but in particular to the quiet lives of our two heroines. We even get to see some lovely makeover moments, which I’m always partial to.
There’s so much to be discussed and analysed in “The Elegance of the Hedgehog”, but in my not so humble option it’s mainly about seeing beyond the apparent, or as Renée says, to “go deeper”. As a reviewer said, this book it’s “the ultimate celebration of every person’s invisible part.” I love people, I like watching them and am constantly surprised by their peculiar interests and habits. The small things are the best, like my company’s accountant’s passion for tango or my old neighbour’s obsession with growing the perfect cherry tomato. It makes people real and you do see beyond.
I wish I could have read it in the original. There’re lots of references to grammar and language that I’m sure would have much more meaning in French, or even in Portuguese (similar rules), but the English edition was a birthday gift. At the cost of going into stereotypes, I found it a very French book… in a good way. Subtle, quirky, satirical but filled with deep reflections on Life, the Universe and Everything else.
Do you usually go for this type of literature – slow/no pace and much musing? I’m a plot-girl myself, but this year’s no-plot books have been surprising me.
[Paloma] If you want to understand my family, all you have to do is look at the cats. Our two cats are fat windbags who eat designer kibble and have no interesting interaction with human beings. The only purpose of cats is that they constitute mobile decorative objects, a concept which I find intellectually interesting, but unfortunately our cats have such drooping bellies that this does not apply to them. My mother, who has read all of Balzac and quotes Flaubert at every dinner, is living proof every day of how education is a raving fraud. All you need to do is watch her with the cats. She’s vaguely aware of their decorative potential, and yet she insists on talking to them as if they were people, which she would never do with a lamp or an Etruscan statue.
[Paloma about Renée] Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside, she’s covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary – and terribly elegant.