The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Muriel Barbery’s Paris-based novel moved, enlightened, delighted and surprised me – with continuous references to thoughts and situations I’ve found myself dwelling on of late.

Originally written in French – the translation is flawless. And I think, in fact, that something is added by translating from French; a Romance language – the language of love.

Barbery’s beautiful vocabulary, profound philosophical musings (she is a professor of philosophy as well as novelist) and wonderfully deep characters captivated me. I mulled over each and every page – re-read passages, allowed my mind to wander off into deep daydreams and then return to hungrily make my way through page-after-page of perfection. I savoured this book like no other.

The story is built around an exceptionally intelligent – perhaps genius – concierge, Renée Michel, who has spent her life hiding her intelligence from the upper class families who inhabit the floors of the Parisian apartment block she maintains.

When 12-year-old Paloma Josse, the youngest daughter of one of the families living in the block – who is also a genius – works out Renées secret, they develop a bond. Paloma also takes a liking to Kakuro Ozu, a cultured Japanese businessman who has recently moved into a flat in the same building. This unlikely threesome start to spend time together philosophising, drinking tea and beginning to feel somewhat happier in their otherwise rather dark, lonely lives.

Renée was born into a very poor family, Paloma into an affluent family and Kakuro is a self-made businessman. The background to each of the characters provides a class aspect to the novel – questioning the importance of wealth, family position, society and working life.

Hopping between Renée and Paloma’s narratives creates wonderfully diverse perspectives of life at 7 Rue de Grenelle – from a working class middle-aged widow – to a young, bright upper-class school girl; fraught with pre-pubescent insecurities.

It made me question my own life; my family and friendships – I reflected on the importance of art and culture, education, careers, class, race and gender.

The novel is seeped in references to Mozart, Tolstoy and Freud. Being a fan of all three made the book even more enjoyable to read. I relished the parallels I could draw with my own life – as each character (the minor characters, as well as the main three) brought something rich and profound to the story.

This book reminds the reader that human beings are complex and fascinating – and that each real life character that you encounter can potentially offer something that will stimulate an emotion of some kind.

This is a beautiful tale of love, life, friendship – the past, the present and the future. Wholly recommended.

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