Europa Editions, 2006, 325 pages
An enchanting New York Times and international best seller and award-winner about life, art, literature, philosophy, culture, class, privilege, and power, seen through the eyes of a 54-year-old French concierge and a precocious but troubled 12-year-old girl.
Renee Michel is the 54-year-old concierge of a luxury Paris apartment building. Her exterior (short, ugly,and plump) and demeanor (poor, discreet, and insignificant) belie her keen, questing mind and profound erudition. Paloma Josse is a 12-year-old genius who behaves as everyone expects her to behave: a mediocre pre-teen high on adolescent subculture, a good but not outstanding student, an obedient if obstinate daughter. She plans to kill herself on the 16th of June, her 13th birthday.
Both Renee and Paloma hide their true talents and finest qualities from the bourgeois families around them, until a wealthy Japanese gentleman named Ozu moves into building. Only he sees through them, perceiving the secret that haunts Renee, winning Paloma's trust, and helping the two discover their kindred souls. Moving, funny, tender, and triumphant, Barbery's novel exalts the quiet victories of the inconspicuous among us.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a French bestseller which has been translated into a dozen languages and became a NYT bestseller in the U.S., propelled mostly by book clubs, I suspect. This is the sort of book beloved by chi-chi intellectual readers who can identify with the secondary characters of the novel but who, like Renee and Paloma, consider themselves ever so much more enlightened and self-aware than the rest of their class. "I'm so glad I'm not a hyper-materialistic class-conscious rich asshole who makes token gestures of solidarity with the little people by deigning to talk to them," they sigh around non-fat soy lattes in elegant cafes two miles from their Upper West Side apartment buildings that they drove to in hybrid SUVs.
But seriously, this book was like watching The Red Balloon with more characters and dialog. And Tolstoy. And a bit of French weeabooism.
The first main character is Paloma Josse, who is a twelve-year-old girl whose father is a Socialist member of the French parliament and whose mother does something or other intellectual and useless, and she has an older sister who's like a Parisian Blair Waldorf except dumber. Paloma is extremely precocious and so she has figured out that her parents are cowardly, unhappy, and shallow, her sister is a waste of oxygen, and society runs on hypocrisy and lies -- 'cause these insightful observations make her different from every other twelve-year-old ever. Having thus concluded that the world is a great big stupid, Paloma has decided to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday, after burning down the expensive apartment in which her family lives. Burning down the apartment seems to be the most poorly thought-out part of her ill-concieved plan, though she's not a psychopath -- she's going to make sure no one is home before she does it. In the meantime, she starts writing diary entries (she titles them "Profound Thoughts" -- seriously! -- and then starts a second diary called "Journal of the Movement of the World") in which she chronicles her daily observations, profound thoughts, and search for meaning (and, as is obvious to the reader from the beginning but not to Paloma until the end, her desire to talk herself out of her stupid suicide pact with herself).
So Paloma is supposed to be a sympathetic figure. Poor, screwed-up little rich girl. Except first of all, she writes like a French philosophy professor (and by that, I mean the author), not a twelve-year-old girl. Barbery gives her a few moments of immaturity and a fondness for manga, but most of the time she writes very, very long block paragraphs about everything from psychoanalysis to Russian literature to something beautiful but out-of-sync she saw on TV.
Secondly, while some of her thoughts are indeed insightful and profound, most of it is just the tedious world-weariness of every other twelve-year-old ever who's just starting to figure out that the world is a great big stupid, but hasn't yet figured out that she's not the only one in the world who has figured this out.
Our other favorite topic of conversation is fate, and people's prospects in life. Cannnelle Martin: ignored, cheated on by her husband, marries off her daughter to a financier, encourages her son to cheat on his wife, ends her life in a Chatou in a room costing eight thousand euros a month. Achille Grand-Fernet: becomes a heroin addict, goes into rehab at the age of twenty, takes over his father's plastic bag business, marries a bleached blonde, engenders a schizophrenic son and an anorexic daughter, becomes an alcoholic, dies of liver cancer at the age of forty-five. And so on. And if you want my opinion, the most awful thing is not that we're plaing this game, but that it isn't a game.
The second main character is Renee Michel. She is the concierge at number 7, rue de Grenelle, a building in downtown Paris containing eight luxury apartments (one of whom is where Paloma's family lives). Renee is an old, ugly (by her own description) widow from a lower-class family. She has spent decades passing under the radar of the elites she works for. She reads Tolstoy and Husserl and Kant and appreciates music, cinema, and art, and goes to great lengths to conceal this from everyone, out of a strange conviction that somehow she'd bring trouble upon herself if the residents realized that their self-educated concierge might actually have a brain. The reason for her paranoia finally emerges towards the end of the book, but it's not a very convincing neurosis, stemming from a childhood tragedy that convinced her that the rich are not like us and not to be trusted. Not something one needs a childhood trauma to realize, nor something that requires one to pretend to be an ignorant halfwit. Most of the residents are leftists who like to make a show of egalitarianism with the hired help, they're not looking for opportunities to crush them beneath their expensive loafers, like Dickensian villains pretending to be erudite intellectuals. So the greatest threat Renee actually faces is being annoyed by people who want to talk to her
One can feel sorry for Renee, and also appreciate her pithy observations about class consciousness -- how even the "nice" wealthy people in the building are mostly hypocrites who regard the working classes as human appliances, and equally disposable. But her complete lack of compassion, her snobbery towards the very people whose snobbery offends her dignity, her failure to consider that maybe some of these people really do have inner lives more complex than she imagines, robbed her of much of my sympathy. Paloma had the same flaw -- she goes on and on about what a neurotic, petty, dimwitted and annoying vacuum her sister Colombe is, but fails to consider that Colombe, while not as bright as her, may also be acting out of the realization that the world isn't working out so well for her either, despite all her privilege. Paloma can be forgiven because she's twelve, and every twelve-year-old is the center of her own little universe. But I found 54-year-old Renee harder to like.
You'll notice I haven't mentioned the plot. For the first half of the book, there isn't one. There is a lot of intellectualizing about art and beauty and class and small moments, and some of it really is quite nicely written. You could consider The Elegance of the Hedgehog a bit of a Basic Philosophy and Literature for Dummies, in novel form. In very short chapters, the POV alternates between Paloma and Renee, both narrating in the first person, as they reflect on their sorrows, their interactions with other people, and life's absurdities.
The story finally appears in the form of a new resident. One of 7, rue de Grenelle's residents has died (a nasty food critic who was apparently the main character in Barbery's first novel), and his apartment is purchased by Kakuro Ozu, a wealthy Japanese man, the son of a diplomat. Since he's the designated Exotic Newcomer, naturally he also sees through the facade of everyone around him, and thus makes himself better and nobler than all the other privileged rich people despite still being super-rich and super-privileged. He figures out that Paloma and Renee are both hiding their genius (Renee gives herself away by betraying that she recognizes an Anna Karenina reference -- 'cause, it's so extraordinary that poor working class people might actually read books!), and strikes up a friendship with both of them. Yes, a middle-aged Japanese man befriends a suicidal twelve-year-old and the dumpy widowed concierge of the building he lives in. Their friendship brings the first real spark of warmth into the book, but it also brings an element of fantasy, as Ozu is just too good-natured and decent and unselfconsciously perfect to be real. He descends like a father figure from heaven to give hope and friendship to these two very different lights hiding under bushels, resulting in an utterly platonic romance for Renee and a chance for Paloma to decide maybe the world doesn't completely and totally suck after all.
The ending is what all the reviews call "bittersweet," which means someone dies and everyone else goes on with their spirits having been expanded by this sad and ennobling experience.
As a book that is also largely about class consciousness, Muriel Barbery (a French philosophy professor) struck me as protesting a bit too much. She's writing about the self-importance and pretensions and hypocrisy and intellectual vapidity of her own class, with a few childlike but trenchant observations from Paloma about human suffering that her rich family ignores while being all socialist and shit, and likewise Renee is constantly aware of the condescension with which she is treated, and yet she is nothing but condescending to those around her. Barbery seems like one of the rich, intellectual self-styled liberals that both Paloma and Renee call out, with Barbery calling them out through her characters, and thus it seems to me she wants to have her privilege cake and eat it too.
This book did not annoy or bore me as much as, say, The Sea by John Banville (maybe intellectual wangsting by precocious twelve-year-old girls and autodidact Parisian cat ladies is just more interesting than alcoholic wangsting by widowed Irishmen), but I think it's a book for people who like to talk about books more than they like to read them. Obviously, however, many people disagree.
What other reviewers say
Excerpts from 5-star reviews:
O my my my! What a gratifying little book! The author's giant brilliant French philosophy professor brain is splattered beautifully all over the pages in perfect tone and measure; the characters are so sweet and awful (respectively) as to very nearly inhabit a world beyond the text; and the thoughts and worries and hopes and sorrows and blessings of Paloma and Renee are so close to my own that I felt like I was getting some kind of little kiss blown from the Universe right at my grim and wicked mind.
In my opinion, this book is not your typical beach-read, it deserves to be savoured slowly and quietly if possible. Yet it is a page-turner and I myself have devoured it. Often heartbreaking, yet unbelievably funny in parts. Real humour pops up unexpectedly, which renders the reading even more pleasant and lightens some heart-knotting situations. The narrative flows beautifully and is linguistically refined.
Excerpts from 1-star reviews:
"...have you ever met someone at a party or something who finds out you studied philosophy -- and then they just try to talk to you the whole rest of the night about random philosophers they happen to know about, when all you want to do is play beer pong and find someone to make out with?"
"Well, this book is that guy."
Unfortunately the Japanese gentleman, Kakuro, doesn't appear until just about halfway through the book, and then he's a ridiculous cardboard cut-out that post-menopausal women might fantasize as an actual blood-and-semen human being. And his only narrative purpose turns out to be to legitimize the wasteful and judgmental fantasy life that Renee (the concierge) lives about herself, and then tie up some loose ends in the fashion of a bad Hollywood script.
Verdict: When I sometimes talk about the divide between genre and literary fiction, and sometimes bag on literary fiction (while also admitting that some of it is damn good and thinky and deep, and that most genre fiction really is nothing more than its stereotype of cheap, flat entertainment), The Elegance of the Hedgehog is the epitome of modern literary fiction. The story is an incidental thread loosely woven into what amounts to a collection of brief intellectual essays by characters who have a voice and a personality but not much agency. I think it's worth reading, and probably worth reading more if you can read it in French (the language in the English translation is quite meticulous and fine, but at times I wondered just how certain idioms and turns of phrase must have been rendered from the original French). It is not, however, an exciting book, and I think it's not nearly as deep as some other reviewers think, but maybe that's because I'm just not as impressed by random name-dropping that shows off the French philosophy professor author's erudition, and by characters who all happen to sound like French philosophy professors.