Runaway French Bestseller Comes Stateside: "The Elegance of the Hedgehog"
A runaway bestseller in France, The Elegance of the Hedgehog
is an unlikely title for so charming a story. Just as the novel features some unlikely heroines, so too does the title serve as a device for hiding the true splendor and riches of this most unusual novel.
The story centers around a single apartment building in a chic section of Paris that is presided over by a concierge named Renee. To the outside world, she is a typical concierge: short, plump, cantankerous, a product of the lower class, destined only to serve. The upper class residents of her building have as little interaction with her as possible, except to task Renee with keeping an eye out for their packages, watering plants, or some other mundane task they need attending to.
Behind the scenes, however, is another Renee: a scholarly woman whose reading encompasses philosophy, art, and culture. She’s someone who devours Japanese film, who loves Dutch painters. Her friends are few, but devoted. Yet Renee is happy to maintain the façade her tenants prefer.
Two of the building’s residents, however, seem to have discovered the real Renee, as much as she tries to hide herself. One is Paloma, the 12-year-old daughter of a rich family living in the building. Paloma, like Renee, has been hiding her own brilliance, trapped by the dull pomposity of her own family. The second (and newest) resident to unveil the true character of both Paloma and Renee is a new arrival, a wealthy Japanese man named Ozu.
The slow reveal of these three characters and their friendship is like the blooming of a beautiful flower. The writing is lovely, at times even heartbreaking. This story of the hidden talent buried in the inconspicuous among us highlights the old adage, “you can’t judge a book by its cover.” In the case of The Elegance of the Hedgehog,
this should be amended to “nor by its title.”