The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery and translated by Alison Anderson has probably the best title of a book I have read so far this year. I seem to have picked this book up very cheaply in a charity shop sale some time ago and I suspect that it was the title that attracted my attention.
It is a French book set almost exclusively in a block of flats in Paris. As appears to be usual in that city the block has a concierge, Renee, who is one of the main characters in the book and tells her own story. The other narrative is that of a teenager, Paloma, who lives with her family in one of the flats. The book alternates between the two voices and soon shows us the similarity between the two people.
Renee is very intelligent and is self-educated having grown up in poverty. She is close to few people, especially following the death of her husband. She feels the need to hide her learning and secretly has contempt for those who live in the building and who are rich but don’t understand culture the way that she does. Paloma is determined to kill herself on her next birthday and to set fire to her family’s flat. She too is very intelligent and despises her family and most of those around her because she finds them shallow and their lives meaningless.
Most of the beginning of the book consists of both characters musing about life and has quite a philosophical feel to it. I have to say that most of what I read at this point hasn’t stuck with me because their thoughts didn’t move the plot along at all and are not developed into anything. The book does liven up when they both become involved with a new inhabitant of the building. They begin to soften and accept others more. Then the plot speeds up and most of the action in the book takes place in the last quarter.
This book didn’t really engage me and I found the ending somewhat disappointing because all the development of the two characters didn’t seem to lead anywhere. The thoughts and musings of the beginning wearied me after a while. I didn’t like the attitude of both characters that those who are not cultured have little value and can be despised and belittled. I was also not cultured enough myself to understand all that was important to the characters or to find it interesting.
I would have preferred a book that was faster paced, and with more plot and less philosophising. I don’t know how typical this book is of French thought and literature but it didn’t really give me an insight into Paris and its inhabitants, although to be fair I don’t think that was an aim of the writer.