Title: The Elegance of the Hedgehog
Author: Mariel Barbery
Date Read: January 17, 2021
Always take second chances. This was a novel that got reshelved a long time ago, when I couldn’t see it’s pure loveliness. When I got to the bottom of the books on my nightstand I went searching for abandoned soldiers and uncovered The Elegance of the Hedgehog.
Twelve year-old Paloma simply crushed my heart with her Profound Thoughts 1 through 15, and a final One Last Profound Thought in which she wrestles with her decision to end her life on her thirteenth birthday, having deciding firmly that life is nothing more than a miserable act of futility.
Renee, the frumpy, plump, widowed, concierge is put upon and dismissed out of hand by the inhabitants of the posh five-floor apartment building in the heart of Paris. Exchanges with each of the apartment dwellers serve only to reaffirm what Renee knows; they cannot detect her intelligence, for it doesn’t seem plausible to them. Carelessly, she slips a few clues to her love and keen knowledge of art, philosophy , and music– and Paloma sees her for who she really is, a kindred spirit.
When the arrogant food-critic from the top floor dies, everyone is suprised that the widow is selling, no one has sold an apartment in the 27 years Renee has been in their employ. The new owner is a kind, elegant, Japanese man in his sixties named Kakuro Ozu.
Renee’s expansive reading diet is complimented by an impressive catalogue of Japanese films– in particular ones by a director called Ozu. “Monsieur Ozu. Could it be that I am in the middle of some insane dream crafted with suspenseful, Machiavellian twists of plot, a flood of coincidences, and a denoument where the heroine awakes in the morning with an obese cat on her feet and the static of the morning radio in her ears?” (Barbery, 138).
What unfolds is a delightful and vulnerable unmasking of both Paloma and Renee. Barbery unspools their knots through beautiful prose, translated from her original French, into short and delightful meditative essays back and forth between the two heroines.
I loved every minute with this book, this time. I am so glad I gave it a second chance.
This is a novel that celebrates the gut feeling, the inspired moment when life changes forever because of a gesture, a laugh, a step off the pavement, or even a glimpse of a beautiful flower. A warning, though: This story, like all great tales, will break your heart, but it will also make you realize — or remember– that sometimes the pain is worth it, that there’s also enough beauty in the world, but only if you see beyond yourself.