A novel that sells 1.2 million copies in France, 400,000 copies in Italy, that remains on its country's own bestseller list for longer than Dan Brown's books have, that garners the 2007 French Booksellers Award and 2007 Brive-la-Gaillarde Reader's Prize, suggests a phenomenon. The barrage of accolades from Vogue to The Washington Post does overwhelm. The reviewer feels almost duty-bound to like this book, especially since the reviewer is also so very fond of hedgehogs.
The hedgehog here in question is Renée Michel, concierge of 7, rue de Grenelle, a well-appointed Parisian hôtel particulier. Renée is 54, ugly, fat, widowed. In short, she represents perfection in a concierge. There is a problem, though: Renée is an autodidact. She debunks the philosopher Husserl and has a cat named Leo, for Tolstoy. She is familiar with both Marx and Ockham, and favours the films of Yasujiro Ozu. As the French class system cannot tolerate anything outside its own code, Renée must circumvent the extremely wealthy inhabitants of 7, rue de Grenelle, and pretend that she is lumpen.
It is the child of one of these wealthy apartment dwellers, Paloma Josse, who gives Renée the hedgehog moniker. "On the outside, she's covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary - and terribly elegant." Paloma is 12, suicidal and, as you may have guessed, precociously intelligent.
The novel is a point-counterpoint affair comprising the diaries of both protagonists, these delineated by both chapter headings and font. Changing fonts to alert the reader to a new character is both precious and presumptuous: Ought not the reader, by the finesse of the writer's control, be able simply to know who is speaking? The reader dislikes being underestimated.
Coincidence abounds in The Elegance of the Hedgehog. The dual protagonists, full of charm, profundity and humour, endear in equal measures: Paloma and Renée are very similar, one representing a younger, much wealthier version of the other. They think and write about the same topics, have concurrent fascinations with all things Japanese. How perfect, then, when a lovely Japanese man moves to the hotel. How perfect that his cats are named for the protagonists of Anna Karenina. How perfect his name is Ozu. How perfect, too, that he immediately befriends both Paloma and Renée, in order to solve not only the mysteries of life, but also the problem of novel symmetry. Oh, how very ugly perfection can be.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog is predicated on its audience being culturally bound to a very particular class system. Much of the novel's softly broad humour - a concierge who must keep the TV on at all times to suggest her proletarianism, who buys thick slices of ham, which she then feeds to her cat, and who hides behind a veil of stupidity, a class expectation of the rich toward the poor, so that she might be free - is terribly outside the North American ken. The reader must first imagine herself into such a system, which thereby lessens the effect of the paradox.
There has been much talk of whether this book will succeed in translation to English. (Incidentally, Europa Editions has already increased the print run to 50,000 copies.) The argument against success revolves primarily around the issue of plot. As in French film, plot here is light as dust, while internal philosophizing is thick. But truly, where it philosophizes, where it thinks, is where the richness of this book lies: "When a Japanese woman disrupts the powerful sequence of natural movement with her jerky little steps, we ought to experience the disquiet that troubles our soul whenever nature is violated in this way, but in fact we are filled with an unfamiliar blissfulness, as if disruption could lead to a sort of ecstasy. ... When movement has been banished from a nature that seeks its continuity, when it becomes renegade and remarkable by virtue of its discontinuity, it attains the level of aesthetic creation."
Moments like these, and there are many, make The Elegance of the Hedgehog ... well, elegant. Perhaps the novel was ever meant to be, like Renée, "a deceptively indolent little creature," a hedgehog.