The Elegance of the Hedgehog
by Muriel Barberry
I admit that I had a difficult time with this novel at first. In fact, I have been “reading” it for about three weeks–unheard of for me! (But one of those week, I just let it lie on the shelf because I didn’t know if I wanted to go on.) Translated from the French, Hedgehog convinced me that U.S. readers are wimps when it comes to reading novels for the mind. Within the first several pages there were references to Marx, Feuerbach, Mahler, Death in Venice, Proust, Freud, and Japanese art films–topics not addressed even in contemporary American midlist fiction, to say the least.
The novel follows the lives of two misfits–Rene Michel, a well-read, yet (formally) uneducated concierge for a wealthy Paris apartment building, and Paloma Josse, a wealthy, precocious and thoughtful 12-year-old. Both women decry the world they live in and their observations leave them bitter and bereft. Madam Michel hides her true self behind the stereotype of “concierge”; Paloma plans to celebrate her thirteenth birthday by setting the family apartment on fire and committing suicide.
The first half of the book is draining. Both characters are so quick-witted, yet so contemptuous and scornful of those around them, finding empathy for them is difficult. But enter Monsieur Kakuro Ozu, the man who moves both women to awaken to the soft heart of their True selves (yes, a capital T!) and the novel deepens. Paloma quickens to the relationship she develops with both Mm. Michel and Kakuro, and comes to see that her plans of self-destruction really make her no different from the violent youth gangs she sees on TV. And Mm. Michel opens to hope, realizing that perhaps what makes life worth living are those crystalline moments in an otherwise murky existence.
The end was, quite frankly, a shock. Barberry flipped what we were expecting on its end, and, the last incredibly bittersweet pages saw me putting the book aside so I wouldn’t be overwhelmed with tears. It is Paloma who ends the book with, “I’ll be searching for those moments of always within never. Beauty, in this world.”