Muriel Barbery’s The elegance of the hedgehog

Review by Vicky.

This unusual novel became the French publishing phenomenon of 2007 and it took just 35 weeks to reach the number one bestseller spot and has now spent longer in the French bestseller lists than Dan Brown.

There are two narrators in The elegance of the hedgehog: a fifty-four year old widow named Renee Michel who is construed to be a typical polite, somewhat unfriendly and insignificant concierge, and Paloma Josse, the twelve-year old daughter of one of the wealthy families who live at 7, Rue de Grenelle.

There is an upstairs-downstairs alternating narrative –and like the hedgehog, each character keeps her talents hidden beneath her spikes.

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 creature, fiercely solitary—terribly elegant.

Renee is an autodidact who is passionate about culture, the arts and phenomenology, not that the tenants of a grand Parisian apartment building on rue de Gabrielle would ever notice or suspect. The exception being Paloma, whose intelligence is a burden she has to bear, at least until her thirteenth birthday, when she plans to set fire to her parents’ apartment (when she knows no one will be at home) and then commit suicide.

At times I was tempted to skip through the more laborious philosophical passages but the plot gains momentum following the sudden death of one of the privileged neighbours and the arrival of Monsieur Ozu,

Ozu is very exotic, refined, rich, has exquisite taste, disapproves of class boundaries and has a sense of humour. He quickly recognises the hedgehogs and dramatically alters their lives forever.