Renee Michel, the leading lady of this story, is a concierge for wealthy tenants of an apartment building in Paris. She is brilliant and well-read. She is witty and sarcastic. She knows music and art and food. Based on her conviction that a concierge is meant to be uncultured and illiterate, Renee purposely hides her intellect and knowledge from everyone except her cat. Paloma is the supporting character of this story. Also desiring to hide her brilliance from those in her circle (which happens to be her wealthy family), she plans to commit suicide on her 13th birthday because she believes her life just isn't worth living among all of the stupid people with whom she must spend her days. And in the climax of the book, which comes at you quickly and unexpectedly, Renee and Paloma discover each other's brilliance and become fast friends. At its core, this book is about finding beauty in the things of everyday, which, added up, becomes life. The book fed my soul. That sounds so trite, but I simply can't manufacture another sentence to describe just how much I enjoyed it.
I must provide a disclaimer. Tolstoy's Anna Karenina is my favorite book of all time. The Elegance of the Hedgehog references the brilliant classic work. That's not the only reason I loved the book, but it is one of the reasons. And for that reason alone, many of you readers may not enjoy The Elegance of the Hedgehog. If you are not a lover of Tolstoy, I urge you to give him another try. "Urge" as in, right now, get out of your pajamas, turn off the television, find your library card, go to the library and check out Anna. It is that good.
I digress. Back to the hedgehog. You may be pondering the title. This quote will end the mystery. And as you read the quote you will grasp the beauty of Barbery's writing. As Paloma discovers Renee's personality she says, "Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog; 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 little creature, fiercely solitary - and terribly elegant."
Barbery includes a little bit of economic class and pop-culture commentary in the story. One of the best lines in the book is this: "Television distracts us from the onerous necessity of finding projects to construct in the vacuity of our frivolous lives: by beguiling our eyes, television releases our mind from the great work of making meaning." I enjoy a well-done sitcom or drama like the next gal, but does television ever aid me in the "great work of making meaning"? I think not. Later, Renee muses, "Literature, for example, serves a pragmatic purpose. Like any form of Art, literature's mission is to make the fulfillment of our essential duties more bearable." Note to self: buy stock in Amazon.com tomorrow.
Maybe one of the reasons our culture is drawn to the television more than it is drawn to books these days is because it is easier to share thoughts on Lost than it is to discuss Anna. To discuss Anna with someone, the someone has to have read Tolstoy. To discuss Lost with someone, the someone has to have passively watched a screen for an hour while folding laundry. For me, I have not finished reading a book until I've discussed it with someone. Then We Came to the End was a great book. It became a satisfying book for me after my husband read it. In The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Renee experiences that kind of joy for the first time. She describes the experience like this:
"When did I first experience the exquisite sense of surrender that is possible only with another person? The peace of mind one experiences on one's own, one's certainty of self in the serenity of solitude, are nothing in comparison to the release and openness and fluency one shares with another, in close companionship...When did I first feel so blissfully relaxed in the presence of a man? Today is the first time."
This book is about the everyday and how the beauty in it draws human beings together. And if the love of art, classical music, literature, good vocabulary, excellent grammar and tea are a part of your everyday, you will love this book. As Renee says, "Those who feel inspired, as I do, by the greatness of small things will pursue them to the very heart of the inessential where, cloaked in everyday attire, this greatness will emerge from within a certain ordering of ordinary things and from the certainty that all is as it should be, the conviction that it is fine this way."