The Elegance of the Hedgehog

(cover found here)

I LOVED this book. Really, really loved it. So charming and quirky and wonderful, I suspect I’ll be buying it as a gift for a few people, and recommending it to many others.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is the story of Paloma and Renée, two inhabitants of an elegant apartment building in Paris.  Paloma is the youngest daughter of a wealthy couple who inhabit one of the apartments, and Renée is the building concierge.  Both Paloma and Renée hide their true selves from the world around them, fearing the consequences if people find out their secrets.  And their secrets are the same:  they are both fiercely intelligent, lovers of beauty and art, sensitive and kind at heart, though neither suffers fools kindly.

Here, a lovely glimpse into the mind of Paloma, who has decided that life is futile, and therefore is determined to kill herself on her thirteenth birthday, and is presently biding her time amongst the living:

In the split second while I saw the stem and the bud drop to the counter I intuited the essence of Beauty.  Yes, here I am, a little twelve-and-a-half-year-old brat, and I have been incredibly lucky because this morning all of the conditions were ripe: an empty mind, a calm house, lovely roses, a rosebud dropping.  And that is why I thought of Ronsard’s poem, though I didn’t really understand it at first:  because he talks about time, and roses.  Because beauty consists of its own passing, just as we reach for it.  It’s the ephemeral configuration of things in the moment, when you can see both their beauty and their death.

Oh my gosh, I thought, does this mean that this is how we must live our lives?  Constantly poised between beauty and death, between movement and its disappearance?

Maybe that’s what being alive is all about:  so we can track down those moments that are dying.

And a glimpse into Renée’s mind, she who loves art and beauty above all else, yet hides these predilections behind the facade of the ‘typical French concierge’: lazy, slow, foolish, addicted to television soaps, and cantankerous to boot:

This is the situation: her am I, Renée, fifty-four years of age, with bunions on my feet, born in a bog and bound to remain there;  here am I going to dinner at the home of a wealthy Japanese man – whose concierge I happen to be – solely because I was startled by a quotation from Anna Karenina; here am I, Renée, intimidated and frightened to my innermost core, and so acutely aware of the inappropriateness and blasphemous nature of my presence here that I could faint – here, in this place which, although it may be physically accessible to the likes of me, is nevertheless representative of a world to which I do not belong, a world that wants nothing to do with concierges; as I was saying, here am I, Renée, somewhat carelessly allowing my gaze to wander beyond Monsieur Ozu and into a ray of light that is striking a little painting in a dark frame.

Only the splendors of Art can explain why the awareness of my unworthiness has suddenly been eclipsed by an esthetic blackout.  I no longer know who I am.  I walk around Monsieur Oze, captured by the vision.

Monsieur Ozu is the catalyst for change in this story.  He is a new tenant in the building, the first new tenant they’ve had in over 20 years, and he is able, at a glance, to see beyond the facades put up by Paloma and Renée.  He is interested in art and literature and beauty in the world, and he recognizes kindred spirits in Paloma and Renée, and seeks out their friendship.  Through him, they discover not only their own worth, but each other, and the a beautiful friendship is born.

Again, I loved this story.  It was one of those books that I didn’t want to put down, while at the same time, I didn’t want to end.  I would recommend it to anyone, and very highly.   I’m sure you’ll be hearing more about it in the future.

7 thoughts on “The Elegance of the Hedgehog

  1. I am SOLD SOLD SOLD on this book… I’ll dash out right away and get it, I must!! Absolutely must.
    I’ll read it on the plane on my way to Paris next month.

    Merci beaucoup!!

    Scarlett & Viaggiatore

  2. I have been looking for new reading material and will definitely check this one out. I now am thinking that I need to get some tulips for the table, by the way.

  3. Wow. What interesting characters through which one can explore such important themes.

    I, too, believe (like Paloma) that beauty in nature has a lot to teach us about life. I am continually struck at how palm trees are perpetually living and dying–new life sprouting out the tops as dead fronds dangle below and eventually fall off. They are like the plant version of the Phoenix.

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