The Elegance of the Hedgehog

20 August 2013
Written by Diana Kenny
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Two very different characters, one young, one old, provide the double narrative of this month's book. Diana Kenny writes that you will fall in love with both of them


The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery, is a lovely book, full of concealment and secrets. The main character is Renee Michel, the concierge of a block of exclusive apartments in one of the most elegant parts of Paris.

Twelve-year-old Paloma Josse lives with her parents and sister in one of the apartments. She considers the privileged people around her to be snobs, life to be absurd and has made a pact with herself that she will commit suicide on her 13th birthday. To this end she is stealing her mother’s pills.

The novel, translated effortlessly from French to English by Alison Anderson, is narrated through the eyes of Renee and Paloma, mainly in short episodes with Renee as the dominant character. She conceals her love of literature and philosophy behind a dowdy exterior and prickly manner. Pretending to indulge in low-quality television and basic food, her interests are far more sophisticated; including opera, reading the classics and a keen interest in Japanese art-house films. 

Paloma also hides her intelligence but she has noticed things about Renee and begins to hang around her apartment. Renee, recognising a fellow recluse, gives her admission to the inner sanctum and her books.

A transformation is wrought with the death of one of the apartment occupiers and the introduction of the urbane Mr Kakuaro Ozu. Along with Paloma, he suspects that all is not as it seems with the concierge.  

What follows is a delightful story of truths being uncovered, friendships being forged and decisions being revised. This is an erudite book with many literary and philosophical references, but it is also the story of a woman finding that despite appearances and her own fears of inferiority, intelligence is always celebrated.

The novel was published in 2006 and translation rights have been sold to 31 countries. It has won several awards in France and was made into a film in 2009. 

The review by The Guardian newspaper's Viv Groskop stated that the novel was “clever, informative and moving, it is essentially a crash course in philosophy interwoven with a platonic love story”.

It also challenges our own perceptions of others – do we just see (or not see) the cleaner or do we take the time to discover the person?



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