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Book Discoveries: The Elegance of the Hedgehog

The Elegance of the Hedgehog
Muriel Barbery

Translated from French to English, The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a powerful novel that brings two very extraordinary characters to life.  Renee Michel is a concierge at an upper-class Parisian apartment complex.  She constantly has to conceal her intelligence from the other tenants in her building for fear they may not appreciate her insights and philosophies – especially if they are coming from one of their apartment employees.  Paloma Josse is the young (but not innocent) twelve year old daughter of a very wealthy Parisian family living in Renee’s building.  She struggles daily with the pointlessness of life and the bothersome relationships within her family.  Both women are best described as closet intellectuals – hiding their knowledge from the world, their families, and strangers.  Their lives are full of personal longing, literature, and heavy thoughts – the hustle and bustle of their building tosses them from meditative state to ferocious frustrations in a heartbeat.

The book is written with alternating chapters between the two characters.  It is not until an older, cultured, Japanese businessman moves in that our Renee and Paloma begin to discover that they have more in common than they realize.  Mr. Kakuro Ozu’s patience and insight offers the women a chance to see each other for the first time, discovering that sometimes, anyone can have a secret that’s better shared than kept locked inside.

With Ozu’s presence in the building, the tenants begin to adjust to the new stir of events.  He begins to break down Renee’s solitary demeanor as the two begin to form an unusual friendship.  Paloma is also taken with Kakuro, his serenity and calmness — he gives her things to look forward to, which is ultimately what she needs.

The novel was first published in France in 2006 with a print run of 4,000 books, but became a publishing phenomenon and sold over a million copies the following year.  It was first printed in English in September 2008 to acclaimed reviews.  It has now been translated into several languages and published in a number of countries.

If you’re worried the weather is going to keep you inside too long and you want something to help keep you warm, I recommend reading this book.  From time to time we need to remind ourselves that we are not alone in our questions or thoughts, and sometimes we could use a bit more elegance in our lives.

With questions about the meaning of life, suicide, and class, Barbery presents us with a Parisian world that could very well be our own.

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