At night and on weekends, the janitorial custodian who works in my office transforms into a community theater director and actor. It’s her passion. If you take the time to chat with her about it, you’ll see a totally different person than the one who is cleaning the bathrooms from 9-5. I think for sanity’s sake, we all need to have people who know the real us. It’s not healthy to live in your own little world and not let other people into it. One of the beauties of friendship is trust: when someone trusts you with a part of themselves that they may not share with the rest of the world it makes the world richer for both of you. Years ago, I remember reading a story with this theme and one line stuck with me—I’ll paraphrase it: Always leave room for people to surprise you, because they always will. It’s something I’m trying to be better at in my own life---making contact with people, getting to know them, and letting the surprise happen.
At first I wasn’t sure if I was going to like this book. It came off as two pretentious people stroking their own egos and looking down upon all the people around them whom they didn’t respect. I pitied them for their self-imposed isolation. Neither one let anyone close enough to know her genuine self. The pretentiousness got old pretty fast, and yet it was fascinating, too…like watching the cool kids at the lunch table across the room, or listening to a celebrity tabloid show while you’re cooking dinner. It irritates you and yet you watch anyway. As I began reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog, I felt that same irritation---These characters are worldly and wise, but are they trying to make me feel inadequate for not having read Tolstoy?
Barbery introduces us to the residents of number 7 rue de Grenelle, a very high end apartment building. Two main characters narrate for us: Renée, the concierge, and Paloma, the 12 year old daughter of a parliamentarian. Renée, is a 50-something widow from humble beginnings. She lives amongst the uber-rich who look down their nose at her, taking her for nothing more than a plain, uneducated, poor person. Yet Renée is not at all what they assume her to be. Self-educated beyond the level of most college professors, she is constantly critiquing the residents’ manners, grammar, behavior, and lack of cultural sophistication. She is vividly aware of her own superiority while scrupulously hiding it from all at the same time. Paloma also possesses intelligence beyond that of her family and neighbors. She quietly observes, criticizes, chastises and cringes at the behavior of her family and her neighbors and questions the purpose of her being.
As I mentioned, I wasn’t sure I could take much more of Renée and Paloma’s superiority, and then…Paloma revealed that she was planning to commit suicide on her next (13th) birthday. Not because of depression, but because she didn’t see her place in a world that didn’t seem to have a point and she didn’t want to end up like everyone else as she saw them. This plot-thickening got my attention. And then a widowed Japanese business man, Kakuro, moves into the building. In just a few days, he figures out that Renée and Paloma are not whom they appear to everyone else. A whole building of people, even the people closest to them, do not know the real Paloma and Renée, but a stranger who takes the time to look, figures them out in just a few brief moments.
Despite a rather sad ending, I found the story to be uplifting. It underlines the need for human connection, friendship and trust. The characters found these truths at the end, so they I think they all found peace and happiness, despite an unfortunate event. (I’m trying not to be a spoiler…but if you invest your time in this book and you end up liking these snooty characters, you will be a little angry with the author at the way she ends it.)
Crack Factor – 7. While I did enjoy this book, if it hadn’t been a pick for my book club, I may have abandoned it early on, but I’m glad that I didn’t. Towards the end, it moves faster as the relationship between Renée and Kakuro gets more complex, and Paloma starts finding meaning and purpose in the world.
Distraction Factor – 7. The ending of this book is upsetting. But I didn’t find myself dwelling on the book when I wasn’t reading it, and while it did have some themes I found reflective, I wouldn’t say it kept me up at night thinking about them.
Enrichment Factor – 7. This book had many references to art, books and music and movies that I had either never experienced or never even heard of. It made me want to read Russian literature. But I’m giving it a lower rating because I also got a little peeved that it made me feel slightly inadequate for not having read Russian literature.
Writing Skills Factor - ? I don’t know how to rate this one. The prose is good, but I often times thought some words were ill-chosen or deliberately difficult, perhaps to illustrate the point that these characters think they are so much better than everyone else. But these could also be translation hiccups since this book was originally written in French. So the writing negatives may be all on the shoulders of the translator. As a Spanish speaker, I know how difficult translation is, but if you’re good enough to translate a whole book, you can do better than this. I’ve read many translated novels where I never had this question in my mind about the translation affecting the story.
People Factor -9. Barbery really does create good characters. They are complex and interesting and they keep you guessing. Characters who are likeable and irritating at the same time are always the best kind.
Total rating: 7.5