The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a rich, French novel

Natalie Schermer

Originally published in France under the title “L’élégance du hérisson,” everything about Muriel Barbery’s slim novel screams “French!” The stylish yet simple color-blocked cover sets the tone perfectly for the deceptively simple novel within. “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” tells the story of two surprisingly similar Parisians living in a big, old, fashionable Paris apartment building.

One is 50-something year-old Renée, the unremarkable building caretaker who hides a philosophical soul and a love of literature beneath a stony and remarkably boring exterior. The other is 12-year-old Paloma, an extremely precocious girl whose parents don’t understand her and who is so convinced of the utter meaninglessness of life that she plans to commit suicide on her 13th birthday.

They’re an odd pair, and indeed they don’t even become friends until near the end of the novel. But the narration switches between them, Renée’s sections unaddressed and Paloma’s entries in her book of “profound thoughts.” While Renée and Paloma are very different people in very different situations in life, they have similar souls, both closet intellectuals who revel in philosophy and literature — Renée’s cat is named Leo, after Tolstoy. They’re also linked by a common love for Japanese culture. Renée spends hours with the films of Yasujiro Ozu, a Japanese director, while Paloma loves reading Manga. It is only when a new and mysterious resident moves into the building, a Mr. Ozu, that the walls that both Renée and Paloma have built up gently begin to come down.

Mr. Ozu, a Japanese businessman, is the first to see through both Renée and Paloma and the one who brings them both together. He suspects that Renée is not the stout, boring, uneducated Frenchwoman she pretends to be and sees Paloma as much more than a little girl. Together, Mr. Ozu and Renée help Paloma realize that not all adults are like her snobby, bourgeois family or the rest of the building’s tenants.

Barbery, both a novelist and a professor of philosophy, here presents a mélange of her two professions. “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” is chock full of literary, philosophical, and artistic allusions, from Sartre to Flaubert, of exactly the type you would expect from this sort of novel. They don’t feel forced, though, as allusions are wont to do; rather, they mesh perfectly with the personalities of the protagonists.

Renée is the type to have read Proust and Kant and Tolstoy; it makes sense that she would reference them. It’s easy to get lost in all the allusions, worrying about what’s being referenced at every second, and Barbery has been praised for her work in this manner. The beginning of the novel, before Mr. Ozu moves in, moves very slowly, and it’s in the allusions and the world Barbery has created from them that the interest lies.

But after Mr. Ozu enters, and the plot pace picks up a bit, I found I stopped caring quite as much and became much more interested in the character interactions and storyline — perhaps in the same manner as Paloma becomes interested in the world.