The Elegance of the Hedgehog

A young girl and a concierge find kinship.

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The concierge of No. 7, rue de Grenelle, in Paris, is so very typical of that peculiarly French breed that the inhabitants there sometimes joke about her at their dinner tables. Aside from that, they never really see her.

“I am a widow, I am short, ugly, and plump, I have bunions on my feet and, if I am to credit certain early mornings of self-inflicted disgust, the breath of a mammoth,” Renée Michel informs readers on the first page of Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog. “I did not go to college, I have always been poor, discreet, and insignificant.”

“The Elegance of the Hedgehog,” Barbery’s second novel was a phenomenon in France, winning the 2007 French Booksellers Prize and making headlines because at least one psychotherapist prescribed “Hedgehog” to her patients. (Please don’t hold that against the book.)

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Renée Michel has a secret: Behind her housedress and worn out slippers, she hides a keen, questing mind.

“I stand up, careful to drag my feet: the slippers in which they are clad are so very typical that only the coalition between a baguette and a beret could possibly contend in the domain of cliché,” she notes with some pride.

The cliché, which Renée delights in acting to perfection (going so far as to buy food she would only feed to her cat, because it’s what people expect concierges to eat), is a protective armor that protects her from the unimaginative stares of the wealthy inhabitants of No. 7, where she’s been the concierge for 27 years without exciting the interest of anyone except her friend, the cleaning lady.

Manuela is similarly invisible, despite the fact that – support hose and all – she shines with more aristocracy than the wealthy women she picks up after.

“What is an aristocrat?” Renée asks. “A woman who is never sullied by vulgarity, although she may be surrounded by it.”

Elegance and refinement uncovered
Until a Japanese man moves into the building and immediately discerns Renée’s Tolstoy-loving soul, the only one who suspects Renée’s secret life is Paloma, a young girl who lives on the fifth floor.

“Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog,” writes Paloma in her journal. Paloma, who’s careful to conceal just how intelligent she is even from her parents, understands the virtues of hiding from the unworthy.

“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.”

The truth is that Renée lives a richer life than the upper-class people for whom she fetches packages. She’s an autodidact, but not a snob.

She reads the philosophy of Husserl and Kant, but also the mysteries of Michael Connelly. She loves Dutch masters and Japanese cinema, but has a soft spot for “Blade Runner” and “The Hunt for Red October.”

“Premise, plot, protagonists, adventures, quest, heroes, and other stimulants: all you need is Sean Connery in the uniform of a Russian submarine officer and a few well-placed aircraft carriers,” she notes.

Paloma, who at 12 is already a weary judge of humanity, has big plans for her 13th birthday.

She’s been stealing her mother’s sleeping pills, and plans to set fire to the apartment building before committing suicide. In the meantime, she’s keeping a journal of Profound Thoughts to see if life just might have a point after all.

Her insights (prefaced by haikus) range from precocious clarity (especially about her mother, whom Paloma rips into with all the merciless contempt a 12-year-old girl can muster) to utter banality (Paloma’s Joyce Kilmeresque revelation about birch trees: “I suddenly felt my spirit expand, for I was capable of grasping the utter beauty of the trees”).

“The Elegance of the Hedgehog” reminded me of “Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont,” with its sense of renewal near the end of a life and a celebration of the beauty of small moments.

It’s a quiet, placid-moving book that takes time out to discuss the theory of phenomenology, the function of literature in life, the barrenness of a certain kind of scholarship.

(Patience is especially needed when Renée spends a couple of chapters discussing – what else? – the meaning of art, when one really wants her to get back to her dinner party.)

From cats to tea to one another
The book’s main characters take more than 100 pages to really see one another, instead moving in tandem as they introduce themselves and contemplate everything from cats (“movable decorative objects,” Paloma decides) to the serenity of tea.

Not all the insights are original (see: the serenity of tea), but “Hedgehog” definitely has its own elegance.

Much of that comes from watching Renée learn to trust others with the dignity she’s guarded so fiercely, and the joy of seeing unlikely friends discover one another. Paloma has little outwardly in common with another precocious heroine of literature, but both she and Anne Shirley know the value of kindred spirits.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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