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Elle (Italy): "this second novel by Muriel Barbery, thirty-eight-year-old French author and professor of Philosophy, is among the most exhilarating and extraordinary novels in recent years."

Date: Oct 16 2007

Hidden Treasures

The title is one of the most curious and least appealing: The Elegance of the Hedgehog. And yet, this second novel by Muriel Barbery, thirty-eight-year-old French author and professor of Philosophy, is among the most exhilarating and extraordinary novels in recent years.

Setting: an elegant apartment building in one of the most elegant streets in Paris inhabited by eight well-off families. Characters: Paloma, twelve years old, highly gifted, lucid, whose father is an important parliamentarian and former minister, and whose family is a hive of snobs; she is planning to commit suicide on the day of her thirteenth birthday. Renée, the luxurious building’s concierge, fifty-four years old, who describes herself thus: “I am a widow, I am short, ugly, and plump, I have bunions on my feet and, if I am to credit certain early mornings of self-inflicted disgust, the breath of a mammoth.”

What do the little rich girl and the wretched concierge have in common, besides the fact that they live, albeit in decidedly different circumstances, in the same luxurious building? Both interpret the roles assigned to them perfectly: mediocre adolescent indistinguishable from others her age; uneducated and rather cantankerous concierge who incarnates every social prejudice associated with her position. In order to live happily and to avoid integrating with others, both keep their refined intelligences and their erudition hidden.

Paloma detests her older sister’s cold and trivial scholarship, her mother’s conventional and useless culture. Renée, in order not to rouse suspicion, pretends to watch television soaps, when in reality she is listening to Mahler. Her cat is named Leo after Leo Tolstoy, she’s crazy about Ozu’s films, and to herself she debates and refutes the phenomenology of Husserl. She shudders at the poor grammar of her rich, educated cohabitants, who, for their part, do not even notice her, do not greet her, and address her, disdainfully, only when they need something done. But she, dragging her slippers and grumbling—as her role dictates—silently sizes them all up, one at a time, analyzing their meanness and presumptuousness. A new tenant who moves into the apartment of an odious food critic, now defunct, will unmask her. His name is Ozu—prophetic!—like the great Japanese filmmaker. Being Japanese, he is familiar with the concept of “wabi,” which means “an understated form of beauty, a quality of refinement masked by rustic simplicity.”

Muriel Barbery has dedicated her book to her beloved husband, Stéphane, a sociologist, with whom she says she wrote the book. They live in a small town near Bayeux, France, and hate notoriety. While her first book, Une Gourmandise, may have passed under the radar, this one has sold over half a million copies in France. Into the pages of this very entertaining novel Renée and Paloma weave intelligence, philosophy, and sophisticated thoughts on literature and cinema. All this, without the least degree of pedantry, indeed, almost without the reader even noticing.

By Natalie Aspesi