If you’ve ever read any of my posts about books, you can probably tell that I’m rarely a fan of contemporary fiction. I can’t help it; when compared to Shakespeare or Fitzgerald, many modern books seem to be little more than novelized movies. You know the type: The Devil Wears Prada was originally a crappy book but the movie was fabulous, and the same goes for Julie and Julia. They’re everywhere these days, so I am very pleased to say that The Elegance of the Hedgehog proved to me that there are still authors who respect and can expertly handle their chosen medium.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog is written from two points of view and features three extremely intelligent characters. Renée, an aging concierge at a posh apartment complex in Paris, is a chronic recluse. She spends a lot of energy trying to hide her intelligence and fool the residents into believing she is a low-class, idiot concierge, like she believes they expect. She rarely interacts with anyone as her true self. Paloma is a young girl who, in only 12 short years, has decided there is nothing in life worth living for. Paloma, who lives in the apartments, is disgusted and appalled by the behavior of the upper class, and, like Renée, spends most of her time alone. The story is told through alternating journal entries written by Renée and Paloma, and the two characters seem to hardly have noticed each other until an elderly Japanese man named Kakuro moves into one of the apartments. Kakuro is elegant and intriguing and he sees both Renée and Paloma for who they are. Paloma is grateful for his insight, but Renée is frightened, and it takes the encouragement of both Kakuro and Paloma to help her from her shell.
The beginning of the novel has very little plot, but I enjoyed it. Barbery expertly constructed the novel so the reader continually makes discoveries about the characters and life along with Renée and Paloma. At the end of the novel, I was surprised to find out how emotionally attached I was to the characters. Throughout the discussion of tea, Anna Karenina, and camelias, Barbery quietly tied my sentiments to her leading ladies and I found myself cheering and begging with Renée when she is trying to muster the nerve to see Kakuro and jeering with Paloma at her older sister. And although Barbery does and excellent job of interweaving the lives of her characters, I especially appreciated how each character comes away with their own unique lessons learned in the end of the book. Barbery shows that there are many ways to comprehend meaning behind one event, equally important meanings that are often overlooked.
If you haven’t read this book, you should. I managed to read it at the very end of a college semester, sneaking chapters in between finals and after studying at nights. It’s a wonderfully penned book and a life-changing event.