The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
I’ve spent the last few days looking forward to my daily dose of The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Muriel Barbery’s novel about two unlikely intellectuals reads almost like a series of essays at times (and I regret to say, there are a few somewhat dull passages), but due to the quality and authenticity of the writing, is a rewarding page-turner.
In terms of structure, the book is broken up into the narratives of the two aforementioned protagonists: Renee Michel, the concierge of an upscale Paris apartment building and Paloma, the twelve-year-old daughter of one of the building’s tenant-families. Renee’s narrative is essentially a journal detailing briefly the events of her life but at length her thoughts on Art, Beauty and her clandestine intellectual lifestyle. Paloma’s narrative is split between her own two journals: her diary of “Profound Thoughts” and her similar “Journal of the Movement of the World.” Though both protagonists unknowingly share a similar view on life, their worlds do not collide until a new resident, the cultured, kind and wise Mr. Kakuro Ozu, moves in and brings them together.
If I were to give this book a thesis it would be this: in a world view in which all humans are bound to a “biological destiny” in which we are simply animals surviving among others, the appreciation of Beauty makes life worthwhile. We live in a world in which chaos and absurdity abound; however, through appreciation of the small moments in life that exact emotion and a sense of artistry, we can relish in the memories we are left with.
Regarding the writing itself, I appreciated the technical differences between each narrative style–Paloma’s intelligent, but juvenile and Renee’s astute but at times scattered (fitting as she is the autodidact of the two). As a change of pace, I also enjoyed reading a book that, as many of its reviews confirm, is not at all American. Many instances throughout the book triggered this thought for me, primarily the naturalist non-Christian foundation and the notion that self-realization is more a result of one’s acumination of intelligence and transparency, not hard work and equal opportunity. While I don’t necessarily believe that the French have it right, it was certainly refreshing to read another point of view.
Overall, my opinion of this book is very positive. Though I don’t believe it is for everyone (it is defintiely for a public “mass audience”, which not everyone will appreciate), I will certainly recommend it to certain others.