Book Review For “The Elegance of the Hedgehog”

Book Review for “The Elegance of the Hedgehog”
Written by: Muriel Barbery
Published by Europa Editions
ISBN: 978-1-933372-60-0
325 pages
5 StarsBarbery crafts an emotional, moving story about two unlikely people who find inspiration in the other. Set in the heart of a Parisian apartment building, Barbery explores class differences and social satire in such a way that it will resonate with the reader long after they’ve put the book down.As the novel opens, the reader meets Madame Renee Michel, the concierge of an affluent apartment building. Renee’s only friend is Manuela, a maid who services the tenants. Manuela also knows a secret about the concierge – Renee is not who she appears to be.Renee is self-educated. She enjoys tea, loves to read, especially Tolstoy and late 19th Century Russian authors. Renee appreciates art, philosophy, music, and the Japanese culture. Through Renee, the reader comes to know the tenants of the affluent building she manages and learns that while they may be materially wealthy, they don’t possess a soul as enriched as hers.Renee takes great pains to hide her enriched soul. She’s a little short, a bit unkempt, and plays the TV rather loudly so the tenants think she watches TV all the time. Renee fools everyone except Manuela.Paloma Josse is a twelve-year-old girl who lives in the building. Paloma is very smart, but deems her life futile and decides she’s going to commit suicide on her 13th birthday by burning the building down. A profound thought indeed, for a twelve-year-old! Paloma records her thoughts in journals called “profound thoughts” and “movement of the world.” Her entries are laced with a little drama, yet capture the same essence of enlightenment that Renee has.The apartment building is turned upside down when a wealthy Japanese man, Kakuko Ozu, moves in. He quickly becomes friends with Paloma and almost immediately sees through the carefully constructed facade Renee has built.After Paloma meets Renee, she strikes up a friendship with the salty concierge. Paloma likes Renee and says the concierge has the “elegance of a hedgehog;” all prickly on the outside, but soft and warm on the inside. Only time will tell if Renee’s influence will change Paloma’s mind about the direction of her life.The book starts by introducing Renee, her life, and giving a little background as to how Renee became a concierge. It’s rich in characterization, but it is a little slow. The characterization will make up for that.The narration alternates between Renee and Paloma, Renee is in the first person voice, and Paloma’s narration is told through her journals. The switching of narration is well done and compliments the story.Both Paloma and Renee are rich characters and it is a pleasure to get to know them. Manuela, Kakuko, and the supporting cast are also quirky and entertaining – especially the cats.The pacing picks up about one-third into the book and it’s hard to put down after that. The dialogue is well done, capturing each character’s unique voice. Overall, “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” is a poignant read from start to finish.