Sunday, June 30, 2013

THE ELEGANCE OF THE HEDGEHOG – Muriel Barbery

Looking for some witty writing in a delightful book full of unusual and not-quite-normal characters? Do you like a little philosophical fable-ness once in a while? I do, that's why I am a fan of Yann Martel and Paul Coelho. This short French novel feels a bit like that. The copy I have is borrowed and comes from McNally Jackson in NYC, or so the receipt says left inside. The book itself has such a lovely cover, a dusty blue with a young girl in a pink dress wearing calf-high moccasins in front of a fancy door. It is a quality paperback so the pages are a nice acid-free white, and right away in flipping through I noticed that different chapters are in alternating fonts. How fun! It has a Contents which much fiction doesn't bother with but I love it when they do. In this one I spied right away that there are chapters called Profound Thought No. 1 – 15, and one whole section called On Grammar. I was weak with excitement knowing this would be a quality read, and so it was/is.

Renée Michel is the concierge in a fancy hotel in Paris. Her apartment or loge is on the first floor where she keeps tabs on her employers who are wealthy aristocrats. Renée reminds me a bit of Trudy in Ursula Hegi's book Stones from the River in that she is, in reality, a different person than the one she so painstakingly presents. Renée is well-read, informed, intelligent, and socially and politically aware. However, she knows that to be considered, in Parisian society, a good concierge she must maintain a low profile, go mostly unnoticed, mind her own business, be efficient and reliable, but never enter into intellectual conversations with the tenants, therefore being perceived as uneducated and uncultivated.

Twelve-year-old Paloma lives with her family on the fifth floor. She despises what she sees as the bourgeois lifestyle of her parents and the other tenants of the hotel. Even though Paloma is brilliant, funny, talented, and very politically and socially aware she has expended much energy for many years pretending to be average and thus also go unnoticed. So disenchanted with life and her family she has decided to commit suicide on her 13th birthday.

The death of a tenant and the appearance of a new one, a Mr. Kakura Ozu brightens up the lives of both Renée and Paloma. It is on page 143 when Paloma is talking with Ozu and she happens upon the analogy from whence the title comes:
Madam 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.
Paloma may be my favorite child character in a book for at least a decade and her best entry may be in her section Profound Thought No.10: Grammar a Stratum of Consciousness Leading to Beauty where she not only takes offense at the ineptness of a teacher trying to explain to a student the importance of grammar, but goes on to elucidate in her own words, “I find there is nothing more beautiful, for example, than the very basic components of language, nouns and verbs. When you've grasped this you've grasped the core of any statement. It's magnificent, don't you think? Nouns, verbs...”

Paloma and Renée realize they are kindred souls. Renée sees more to herself and Paloma learns to be less depressed. They are survivors after all and such wonderful characters. I would read this book again.

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