Renée Michel and Paloma Josse live in an apartmentbuilding in Paris. Paloma is twelve years old and is a very intelligent and sharp child. She sees how hypocritical her parents are and she is determined not to end up like that. Her solution is that she will kill herself on her thirteenth birthday.
Renée Michel is the caretaker of the building. A common woman who takes out the garbage and cleans the staircases. Most of the rich inhabitants only speak to her when she needs to do something for them, but none of them realize that this plain woman knows more about literature, art, philosophy and music than all of them combined.
Renée goes to extremes to hide her true self, just like Paloma cannot show her ideas and her intelligence to her family because they would not understand her.
Only when there is a newcomer in the building, the Japanese Mr. Ozu, they recognize in eachother kindred spirits and an unlikely but close friendship is formed.
Some books will take some time to get into. The first pages are difficult to read and after a while you ask yourself why put yourself through this. That became clear very soon; I was fascinated by the hidden lives of Renée and Paloma and I wanted to see what would happen.
But why did I struggle so much in the beginning? For me this was the language and the way it was written. I like beautiful flowing sentences and poetic descriptions (I like Philippe Claudel for a reason!), but in the first chapters there was only a very forced way of writing, with ugly sentences and weird constructions, that did not help the many philosophical ideas that came up.
Somehow, somewhere this feeling of a struggle changed. I cannot say if the writing changed or if I just got used to it, but the fact remains that I began to love The elegance of the hedgehog. Finally I found on those pages the beauty I was looking for.
And now I think about it, this is typical for the book. With both characters you also need to take your time to get to know them, it is a struggle to see behind their masks.
Renée Michel hides from her surroundings. She tries very hard to be the archetypical concierge and give no clues that perhaps she is not what she looks. She has several reasons for this behavior, a part of it stems from her youth when she learned that mingling with the rich and the people who are above her socially will only end up with humiliation and betrayal.
It is also the fear of somebody who knows a lot, but is not sure of that knowledge. As an autodidact you only know what you taught yourself, but you are never sure if you did not miss crucial information.
So, it seems for her that it is better to look like a plain woman with no education and only enjoy Tolstoy, Vermeer and Mozart in the safety or your own home.
Paloma is a precocious child who does not really see that looking down on people is not the best way to bring out their good behavior. But I can forgive her for that, because she is only twelve years old. And she is a very unhappy child who does not get from her parents what she needs. She has to figure out the way to adulthood all by herself, and that is hard enough as it is, but if you are so different from the people around you in the way you think and see things, it becomes an almost impossible task.
It is no wonder that Paloma seeks a rather melodramatic way out, and she does not have enough life-experience to see that it is indeed melodramatic.
It is an outsider, somebody who is not brought up in the same cultural stereotypes and therefore can see through them, who sees the core of Paloma and Renée.
I loved the way the visits of Renée to the apartment of mr. Ozu were described, slowly she comes out of her shell and enjoys the company and the friendship that is offered to her.
I also loved the many philosophical idea that come up in this novel. Muriel Barbery is a philosopher, and she managed to make a beautiful mix that centers on the ideas of why we need beauty and why we need art.
For some people this may be too much, but I found it made the story even more special and also made you think about the book for a long time.
In many reviews I read that people did not like the end, but I thought it was fitting and beautiful. I could not hold back a few tears, I must confess.
The elegance of the hedgehog is a very special and beautiful book. It is not a book to read in a hurry, but a book to take your time with. You have to get past the spines before you get to the elegance and the beauty.
Original French title: L’élégance du hérisson
Published in 2006