I had heard very mixed things about this book before I started it. One person told me it was the best book she had read all year, and another told me that she put it down after thirty pages because it was "pretentious". I'm glad I kept reading beyond the first thirty pages, because though I was a little slow getting into it, I ultimately loved this book.
This story is narrated by two people who live in the same ritzy apartment building in Paris, Renee Michel, the dumpy, lumpy, frumpy 54-year-old concierge of the building, and Paloma Josse, the precocious 12-year-old daughter of a diplomat and a socialite who live there. Madame Michel is a very intelligent autodidact, lover of art, books, music and movies, who hides behind a mask of stupidity--what she says is the typical concierge persona--and doesn't want any of the upper class residents of her building guessing that she has a secret intellectual life. Paloma is a very intelligent girl who plans to commit suicide on her 13th birthday unless she finds something in the world, some truth or beauty, that makes life worth living.
Both Renee Michel and Paloma keep diaries, where they record their musings on the nature of beauty, the importance of art, the meaning of life, as well as wonderfully French observations on the foibles of the upper middle class Parisians they live among.
Renee Michel is a great character, a person hiding behind the facade of what people expect her to be. At first I got frustrated by her hiding and posturing. It seemed that she was obsessed with the class difference between herself and those she served as concierge, and I started to wonder if class was a bigger issue in France today than I imagined. But without giving any spoilers, I'll say that later in the story the reasons for Renee's seeming obsession with class became clearer and much more understandable.
And as I read on, I started to enjoy Renee's character more. She is an extraordinary mind inside an ordinary person--she's a character we can all relate to, because don't we all feel just a little bit misunderstood, and wouldn't we all like to say we are more than what meets the eye? And she has a lovely Cinderella moment, when she is finally seen, finally understood, by the two kindred spirits who live in the apartment building where she lives, Paloma and the elegant and mysterious new tenant, Kakuro Ozu. I completely bought the character of Paloma, too. At first I was worried that I wouldn't believe her--I was thinking how hard it must be as a writer to make the voice of an unbelievably smart pre-teen sound believable. But Barbery pulls it off, and as I read I stopped thinking about whether it was working, and got completely engrossed in the book.
And as the book became more about the relationships between these three characters, I liked it even more. The message of the book reminded me of E.M. Forster's quote in Howard's End: "Only connect! ...and human love will be seen at its height." Because it's ultimately all about human relationships, isn't it? By the end, The Elegance of the Hedgehog was both a book of ideas and a book I could relate to on an emotional level. I understand that the author is a professor of philosophy. This shows in the elegance with which she discusses ideas. But she is also a writer who gives us a lovely story peopled with interesting characters, and manages to tug at our heartstrings, too.
Here are a few passages I enjoyed:
From page 53. Renee Michel, on reading without guidance:
"I have read so many books...And yet, like most autodidacts, I am never quite sure of what I have gained from them. There are days when I feel I have been able to grasp all there is to know in one single gaze, as if invisible branches suddenly spring out of nowhere, weaving together all the disparate strands of my reading--and then suddenly the meaning escapes, the essence evaporates, and no matter how often I reread the same lines, they seem to flee ever further with each subsequent reading, and I see myself as some mad old fool who thinks her stomach is full because she's been attentively reading the menu. Apparently this combination of ability and blindness is a symptom exclusive to the autodidact. Deprived of the steady guiding hand that any good education provides, the autodidact possesses nonetheless the gift of freedom and conciseness of thought, where official discourse would put up barriers and prohibit adventure."From page 123. Okay, another reason I really like this book is that Renee Michel loves Tolstoy, especially Anna Karenina, and so do I. Renee describes a passage in Anna Karenina when Levin is scything grain, and goes into that kind of pleasurable trance that repetitive actions can put us into, and then she compares it to writing in her journal:
"What other reason might I have for writing this--ridiculous journal of an aging concierge--if the writing did not have something of the art of scything about it? The lines gradually become their own demiurges and, like some witless yet miraculous participant, I witness the birth on paper of sentences that have eluded my will and appear in spite of me on the sheet, teaching me something that I neither knew nor thought I might want to know. This painless birth, like an unsolicited proof, gives me untold pleasure, and with neither toil nor certainty but the joy of frank astonishment I follow the pen that is guiding and supporting me."From page 145. Paloma, after meeting Kakuro Ozu for the first time:
"So here is my profound thought for the day: this is the first time I have met someone who seeks out people and who sees beyond. That may seem trivial but I think it is profound all the same. We never look beyond our assumptions and, what's worse, we have given up trying to meet others; we just meet ourselves. We don't recognize each other because other people have become our permanent mirrors. If we actually realized this, if we were to become aware of the fact that we are only ever looking at ourselves in the other person, that we are alone in the wilderness, we would go crazy."I can't wait to discuss all this with my book group next week!