Imagine you are French – or Spanish, Italian, or South Korean. You may already be among the millions smitten by the intelligent, wrenching The Elegance of the Hedgehog
by French philosophy professor Muriel Barbery.
An upscale Paris apartment building provides ample material for Barbery's satire. Two narrators are in charge. The primary voice belongs to the "hedgehog" of the title, a short, plump, 54-year-old widow, concierge and self-described "proletarian autodidact."
Renée Michel lives in her "bleak loge" and attends to business – cleaning halls, watering plants, signing for deliveries. Secretly, our doughy Renée reads voraciously about art and philosophy; her beloved cat, Leo, is named for Leo Tolstoy.
On the fifth floor lives Paloma Josse, a scarily bright 12-year-old, busily planning suicide on her 13th birthday. She's not certain, but she may set the apartment on fire as well. She's also recording her "Profound Thoughts."
These two have never spoken, but the momentum of the novel guarantees they will. Renée remembers being a "hungry soul" as a child, just as Paloma is now; they also share a passion for Japanese culture. Both are thinkers. Why is Renée so afraid? The concierge mask she clings to like a part in a play seems necessary for her very survival. And the ghost-like Paloma hides both from her family and from a world she's not at all sure she wants to join.
Lift-off is achieved with the arrival of a new resident – the wealthy, cultured, genial Mr. Ozu. Keen-eyed Ozu sees directly through Renée's carapace and into her Tolstoy-loving heart. Nervously, she accepts an invitation to dinner, a Cinderella in her 50s. Renée, Ozu and Paloma, this trio of cultured innocents, form a bond. We are cheered.
Barbery is not above ending her tale with a heartbreaking jolt. By then, however, she has drawn us into her Paris microcosm, which seems much less foreign than familiar. Her fable of "love, friendship and the beauty of Art" not only gives innocence a voice, but also shows what a powerful novel can do: transport, educate and, ultimately, console.