I finally finished Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog. It’s not that it took me all that long to read, but it was definitely slow going especially since it required a lot more concentration than most books I read.
Normally I get pages in here and there as I can – be it on a plane, the subway or at the gym. But that system wasn’t going to work with this book and I learned that early on. Flying home from Florida a few weeks ago, I was excited to get a jumpstart on the book I had just picked up. As the girl next to me chatted endlessly with her boyfriend, though, I found I was reading the same paragraphs again and again. I couldn’t tune her out enough to focus like I normally can. This was only partially because of the girl’s annoying conversation and more fully because the book was, as my neighbor who gave it to me explained, challenging.
I wanted to love it. The premise sounded charming and the reviews were glowing. Translated from its original French, the story revolves around two characters: Renee, a frumpy middle aged concierge in a fancy French apartment building, and Paloma, a twelve-year-old girl who lives in the building and plans to kill herself on her thirteenth birthday. Both are exceptionally intelligent, but hide it for different reasons. The book mostly focuses on Renee’s point of view, while Paloma’s side is sporadically shared via journal entries on her “Profound Thoughts.”
The first half of the book recounts the day to day affairs of the building, but primarily lets intellectual musings take over. The two main characters’ thoughts are chock full of philosophical considerations, class consciousness, literary allusions and classical music references. I’ll freely admit that much of it was over my head. I don’t know if that makes me unintellectual or just a dense American. I’m willing to take responsibility either way.
However, about halfway through the book a new resident moves into the building and the plot really picks up. Mr. Ozu, a wealthy Japanese man, forms friendships with both Paloma and Renee and brings out new sides in both of them, but particularly in Renee. As she begins to come out of her shell, I began to enjoy the book much more. I loved seeing her slowly let down her guard and let other people into her secret life. In the end everyone learns lessons about identity and life and death, and I learn that I maybe I understood more of the book than I previously thought.
Overall, I have to say it was a book that took work. When the plot started moving, I got into it. The characters were so different than those of other books and that made them intriguing. And when the plot wasn’t moving? Well, maybe it was good to make my brain work a little. The best part of a challenge is overcoming it. Now who has “Profound Thoughts,” hm?