Review: The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Posted 15 March, 2010 by Lianne in Books / 4 Comments

My friend/program colleague/dorm neighbour/fellow avid reader had been recommending me this book for some time now but I hadn’t picked it up because of the number of books I had lugged along with me from home. I managed to get through them so I finally borrowed the copy off her. When I saw the cover, I realised I have come across this book in the bookstores whenever I’m browsing the shelves (favourite past time of mine, lol) but didn’t flip through it. But I digress…

We are in the center of Paris, in an elegant apartment building inhabited by bourgeois families. Renee, the concierge, is witness to the lavish but vacuous lives of her numerous employers. Outwardly she conforms to every stereotype of the concierge: fat, cantankerous, addicted to television. Yet, unbeknownst to her employers, Renee is a cultured autodidact who adores art, philosophy, music, and Japanese culture. With humor and intelligence she scrutinizes the lives of the building’s tenants, who for their part are barely aware of her existence.

Then there is Paloma, a twelve-year-old genius. She is the daughter of a tedious parliamentarian, a talented and startlingly lucid child who has decided to end her life on the sixteenth of June, her thirteenth birthday. Until then she will continue behaving as everyone expects her to behave: a mediocre pre-teen high on adolescent subculture, a good but not an outstanding student, an obedient if obstinate daughter.

Paloma and Renee hide both their true talents and their finest qualities from a world they suspect cannot or will not appreciate them. They discover their kindred souls when a wealthy Japanese man named Ozu arrives in the building. Only he is able to gain Paloma’s trust and to see through Renee’s timeworn disguise to the secret that haunts her. This is a moving, funny, triumphant novel that exalts the quiet victories of the inconspicuous among us.

Massive Spoilers Lie Ahead as I Wrote Too Much About This Book, LOL; it really provoked a lot of thought out of me 😀

The premise was really interesting: two people who clearly do not fall into the norms of their respective social classes, who try to go along but underneath that surface facade, they really are these intelligent individuals whose outlooks and preferences and thoughts are completely different from other people. What struck me reading this book was how class-based French society was portrayed; I don’t know how much of this is true but you think that it would be more egalitarian (unless this was only the case for this particularly apartment building housing only those far more well off individuals and families) since they were home to the first great Revolution (of 1789 when they overthrew King Louis XVI). Whenever I read thoughts about Paloma and Renee’s thoughts about the bourgeois society, I found myself wondering what precisely is Mme Barbury political leanings (out of curiosity; I study Russian/Soviet history so sometimes I found myself wondering if I was reading something out of the 19c intelligentsia circles in Europe and Russia) and again reinforces my curiosity of how prevalent this sort of class mentality is in France or if this is just (re-)constructed in order to reinforce these characters’ uniqueness and outsider-ness from the rest of society.

A prevalent theme in this book is that of culture and aesthetics and their roles in one’s everyday life. Japanese culture and values are considered to be the epitome of what culture and aesthetics should be and how at one they are with nature and its surroundings. On one level, I completely see this; one finds oneself drawn to the simplistic yet elegant beauty of Japanese art and aesthetics and so forth; there’s a refineness and lightness to it that just captivates you. At the same time (and the academic in me kicks in at this part; couldn’t shake it off no matter how I focused on the book, lol), I wonder how much of this is really orientalism and sort of accentuating the otherness of a foreign culture that is mysterious and alluring, particularly as it is contrasted to their own culture (I can’t remember which chapter set off this thought in my head but it’s somewhere in the first third). But then I remind myself that we all do it to some level; for example, I am particularly drawn to British culture and literature, history and values moreso than I am to the society/background/culture that I’m living in to some extent (I’m keeping this bit vague; it gets complicated when I start explaining, hahaha).

Philosophy also plays a major role in this book. This is where I see how people can be quite turned off by the book as it can get pretty heavy sometimes, particularly at the beginning of the book. It’s interesting in a sense of progression; at the beginning of the novel, it’s heavy on Kantian/metaphysical philosophy; throw in some social theory and psychology about social interactions and sometimes you feel like you’re being preached at rather than reading a person’s POV free of any lecturing. After a while however, and as the story progresses and all these interactions and events take place, you begin to see a gradual shift from hardcore philosophy to a more introspective kind of philosophy, like personal reflections free of theory. So if you’re reading the book and you’re getting turned off by the philosophy, my advice is to stick it out, it does gradually change.

To move to the characters, my favourite has to be Renee. You really get a sense of her life and her aversion to moving outside of her place in society and being who she really is. You can relate to some of the melancholy she’s feeling and the loneliness that she chooses to accept. She’s three-dimensional and her reflections are interesting. I thought her friendships with Manuela and Ozu were wonderful and I love the progression of her character from being socially isolated and afraid of stepping out of her role to someone who fully accepts her passions in life and reaching out to other people.

It took me a while to warm up to Paloma’s character. She’s certainly intriguing, being an intelligent 12-year-old surrounded by a snobby, somewhat eccentric family who doesn’t understand her and she can’t relate to them. She firmly decides at the beginning of the novel that she will end her life when she turns 13 because she doesn’t see the point of growing up and just falling into another cog in the wheel and just running through life as a routine. On the one hand, it’s a fear that any young person faces growing up; you want to be different, you want life to have meaning beyond the usual, dreary tasks of this and that. On the other hand, I admit that I found her a little annoying because of her attitude towards the people around her. While they are pretty annoying and shallow, I thought that her thoughts and attitudes towards them weren’t any better, that she demeaned them from atop her own pedastool of intelligence that was rather arrogant. I guess in the end it accentuates the fact that a) for all her intelligence, she’s still a kid that still has a lot to learn about life, and b) she’s a lot angrier as a character than her kindred spirit, Renee, who was much more passive. But in the end, her journey as a character was much more profound, the gradual realisation that there is so much more to life and that there are good things that come out of reaching out to other people and connecting.

Kakuro Ozu was an interesting character, very kind and really the catalyst that drew these two characters together and really set them off to changing as individuals. I wished there was more time spent on him and his interactions with these two characters, but I suppose it made sense to leave him sort of distant from the spotlight since he’s not the main character(s) of the novel.

Overall, it was an interesting novel. For a while, I didn’t know what to make of it; it was intriguing and thought-provoking and sometimes frustrating, but for it to provoke such thought and reaction (goodness, this has to be one of the longest reviews I’ve ever typed on a book here on my blog!), it certainly was an interesting read. The ending sort of surprised me, I didn’t really expect that to happen (let’s keep in vague, just in case, hahaha) Some of the narrative could’ve lightened up so that you can connect more with the characters but otherwise it was a good read, I’m glad I read it =)

Rating: ★★★★☆

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4 Responses to “Review: The Elegance of the Hedgehog”

  1. I finished reading and reviewing this book really recently, and decided to spend a little time doing a blog search on other people’s reviews to see what they have to say. I like your review: I like how you put a lot of detail into your reactions.

    I was just discussing with another friend who read and enjoyed this book about favourite characters, and my favourite has got to be Paloma’s black friend (the one who made hilarious comebacks), the one featured only in the start of the novel. But in terms of consistent characters, I am also a fan of Renee.

    • Li

      Glad you enjoyed my review! My mind was bursting with thoughts after I read the novel; it was an interesting experience =)

      lol, it’s too bad that Paloma’s friend doesn’t show up after the beginning of the novel. xD

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