On the surface there are many unappealing things about this book; the title, the
main character, the plot, and at times even the setting. So why, one might ask,
has this French novel by Muriel Barbery been translated into a half-dozen
languages? Why has it parked itself at or near the top of France's sales charts
for 102 weeks since publication? Because this book about passion, indignation,
and a hopeless love of art "...has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside
she is covered in quills, a real fortress, but...on the inside, she has the same
simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature,
fiercely solitary - and terribly elegant."
When the reader arrives at 7, rue de Grenelle, all proverbial baggage must be left with the concierge at the door, and Renee Michel has been that lowly concierge for 27 years. Appearing as a sympathetic character, Renee is unattractive, single, and solitary. "I am a widow, I am short, ugly, and plump..." However, don't be misled by such self-deprecation, for pity quickly turns to admiration when we find that Renee's mind is a veritable Eden in which the reader is privileged to dwell.
Of service to the affluent residents she lives beneath, Renee is called upon to handle their daily minutiae. Presuming she is boorish, uneducated, and simple, her employers carry on unaware of their in-house virtuoso. As the reader is repelled by their indifference, Renee embraces their ignorance. Knowing she must maintain the stereotype to preserve her job, her character illuminates the precarious balance she must strike so as not to tip the social scales. From burying philosophy books to feigning dispassion toward the Dutch masters, Renee goes to great lengths to dumb herself down and portray the image dictated by her position.
Renee's character speaks volumes on class structure, and each interaction illuminates the stark stereotypes so deeply ingrained in society. Upon the death of her husband, Renee's reflections leave us stunned as she questions how we interpret each other's pain and the assumptions we attach to the lives of others: "Lucien's illness did not strike anyone as being worthy of interest. To rich people it must seem that the ordinary little people - perhaps because their lives are more rarified, deprived of the oxygen of money and savoir-faire - experience human emotions with less intensity and greater indifference..."
Such powerful insights give pause to the unsuspecting reader and come not only from Renee, but also pour forth from twelve-year-old Paloma. A few floors, yet worlds away from Renee's loge, the suicidal Paloma lives a posh, but parallel existence. Deftly used to exemplify the hypocritical and contradictory world of society's elite, Paloma immediately cuts to the quick, exposing the farce in which she is forced to live. Unable to swallow the affected liberal gibberish dished out by her parents and their contemporaries, Paloma gives voice to the masses as she frets over the "self-reproduction of a sterile elite."
Kindred spirits, Renee and Paloma share an "absolute pitch for false notes or contradictions." Their frank cynicism provides a hard look at how the social classes view themselves and each other. From opposite ends of the social strata, their dual dialogue and position conjoin, drawing attention to the vacuous, artificial world of the upper class.
While brimming with audacity and indignation, The Elegance of the Hedgehog is tempered by a smooth infusion of sophisticated humor and a boundless passion for art. This novel speaks not only of film, music, and literature, but also reflects on the more subtle and forgotten arts of relationship, perception, and understanding. This complex mixture results in a searing diatribe on social class divisions and demands that we call into question our own preconceptions and judgments. The concepts of art and discrimination cross cultural lines and Ms. Barbery's frustration with the world and its lack of passion is perhaps why this work translates so well. Both honest and artfully executed, The Elegance of the Hedgehog strikes a universal chord leaving the reader much wiser for the journey.
This review is from the February 5, 2009 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.
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