The Elegance of the Hedgehog
is told from the perspective of a French concierge of an upper class building, Renée, and a pre-teen genius, Paloma who lives in that same building. Renée is determined to hide the fact that she is well read and brilliant while still enjoying the literature, film, and music for which she lives. To reveal her intelligence would be to betray the role society has given her. As a concierge she appears stupid and obtuse in order to allow her tenants to maintain the illusion that everything is as it should be. Thus Renée is seldom allowed to reveal her true self and remains isolated. Paloma is similarly alone. As a brilliant child, she is unable to reconcile her family’s elevated role in society with their inherent stupidity. Paloma decides to commit suicide in order to escape from a world that she sees as useless and distinctly unfair.
The story continues as Paloma searches for beauty in the world and Renée struggles to suppress and hide her own. Though there is very little action in the book, it is nevertheless engaging. Barbery’s focus on the minutia of life allows the reader to appreciate the subtleties which are so often taken for granted like the universality of culture, and the beauty and simplicity of grammar. Both Renée and Paloma are grammar sticklers, which apart from being hilarious, also allows the reader to appreciate the elegance of the construction of language. Paloma in her journal writes about her own view on grammar:
Personally I think that grammar is a way to attain beauty. When you speak, or read, or write, you can tell if you’ve said or read or written a fine sentence. You can recognize a well-turned phrase or an elegant style. But when you are applying the rules of grammar skillfully, you ascend to another level of the beauty of language. When you use grammar you peel back the layers to see how it is all put together, see it quite naked, in a way. And that’s where it becomes wonderful because you say to yourself, ‘Look how well made this is, how well-constructed it is! How solid and ingenious and rich and subtle!’ I get completely carried away just knowing there are words of all different natures, and that you have to know them in order to be able to infer their potential usage and compatibility. 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…
The book speeds up considerably when Kakuro Ozu moves into the apartment of one of the deceased tenants. Kakuro not only suspects Renée’s cultural refinement, but also recognizes Paloma’s brilliance, and thus befriends them both and brings the kindred spirits together. Renée and Kakuro begin a very intimate friendship, which Renée finds not at all appropriate. She thinks that a concierge has no business crossing class divisions. It becomes clear that Renée’s mistrust of the upper class stems from her sister’s experience with a rich man. Kakuro assures her that she is not her sister, yet Renée is still frightened. Meanwhile Paloma and Renée discover each other and realize that regardless of class, age, and life experience, they are very much the same.
The ending is where my relationship with the book gets complicated. Renée is hit by a delivery truck, which happens to be from the same dry cleaners from which she stole a dress for her dinner with Kakuro, and dies. Her final thoughts for her loved ones fill the page, thoughts for her dead husband, Kakuro, her cat and especially Paloma. The most wonderful thing about the ending is that Paloma decides to forgo suicide and to live her life for both her and Renée, for Renée has shown Paloma that beauty does exist. To me, the event driven ending seemed incongruous with the subtlety of the rest of the book. The fact that the delivery truck belongs to the same dry cleaner from which she stole a dress does seem divine retribution her trying to escape her class role. I very much hope that isn’t the case, because the rest of the novel shows that class is irrelevant in cases of brilliance and love.
This book is witty and heart wrenching, sassy and earnest. It shows that in this mundane world beauty and love are hidden in strangers.