This is a novel that I can only describe as a very ‘French’ mix of the quirky and the philosophical: if you found the film Amélie contrived and pretentious, forget about it; if, like me, you loved it, you’ll enjoy The Elegance of the Hedgehog.
The ‘hedgehog’ of the title is Renée Michel, who works as a concierge in an elegant apartment building in a wealthy part of Paris. Underneath her role as a concierge she hides a sensitive and imaginative intelligence: she grapples with Husserl, deliberates existential questions of class and existence, admires Tolstoy and Japanese cinema.
Barbery pairs her up with a precocious 12-year-old who lives in one of the exclusive apartments maintained by Renée, Paloma. The two characters, although opposites in terms of age and class, mirror each other in that neither feels a sense of belonging in their circumstances and both are longing for an escape.
I really enjoyed the ways in which Barbery lets her characters play out their alienation: her background as a lecturer in philosophy enables her to treat her subject matter lightly, and to let the reader pick up on the ideas presented just as the characters themselves play with them: ‘Yes, the world may aspire to vacuousness,’ remarks Renée, ‘lost souls mourn beauty, insignificance surrounds us.’ This observation, inspired by a scene in a Japanese film, is quickly followed up with the practical ‘Then let us drink a cup of tea.’ Barbery makes us accomplices in Renée’s musings with her evocative description of the effect of that cup of tea: ‘Silence descends, one hears the wind outside, the autumn leaves rustle and take flight, the cat sleeps in a warm pool of light. And with each swallow, time is sublimed.’ Only a determined coffee drinker cannot empathise with this sentiment.
I was, however, left wondering about the purpose of the musings on class and the need to escape its limitations, which are a central theme of the book, when the end, in my mind, renders these musings pointless by reinforcing the notion that any attempt to escape your origins is futile. The protagonists seem find happiness in momentary beauty, which inspires them: ‘the greatness of small things’, a flower opening, an image in a film, makes reality irrelevant and leads them to the comforting realisation ‘that all is as it should be, the conviction that it is fine this way.‘ It’s as if the French Revolution never happened – and I am not sure that a perfect cup of tea, or beautifully presented sashimi, will reconcile me to the idea that inequality is ever, well, ‘fine’.