I read it. Twice. I read it all the way through really fast like I do and then I read it again to allow the flavor of certain phrases and thoughts to mellow and grow.
I loved it. I hated it.
The ending didn’t change the second time I read it, and for that I am really, really upset! The last scene is forever indelibly etched in my brain.
I was rooting for both of the major characters. I wanted Paloma to find her power as an intelligent and witty young girl and want to live, and I urged Renee to realize how brilliant she was and how she deserved love, and that even in our fifties, we can feel special.
What I didn’t expect was the end. I never saw it coming, just like Renee never saw the drycleaner’s van before it hit her. And that’s it. No hospital, no recovery, no happy conclusion with all the loose ends tied up in a pretty pink polka dot bow. I like my stories delivered to me with happily ever afters. I don’t like to fall in love with a character who feels like a real person and then have her torn away from me!
Paloma contemplated suicide, but will blossom like the camellias Renee grew. Renee died the moment she found a reason to live.
FINAL THOUGHTS: I loved it. I hated it. It was totally worth reading. Twice.
What did YOU think?
By Muriel Barbery and translated by Alison Anderson, “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” was a best seller in France and several other countries. The novel’s two narrators alternate chapters, but the book is dominated by Renée, a widowed concierge in her 50s who calls herself “short, ugly and plump,” a self-consciously stereotypical working-class nobody. She is also an autodidact — “a permanent traitor to my archetype,” as she drolly puts it — who takes refuge in aesthetics and ideas but thinks life will be easier if she never lets her knowledge show.
Her unlikely counterpart is Paloma, a precocious 12-year-old whose family lives in the fashionable building Renée cares for. Paloma believes the world is so meaningless that she plans to commit suicide when she turns 13.
Renée’s story is addressed to no one, while Paloma’s takes the form of a notebook crammed with what she labels “profound thoughts.” Both create eloquent little essays on time, beauty and the meaning of life, Renée with erudition and Paloma with adolescent brio.
Both skewer the class-conscious people in the building: Paloma observes the inanity of her parents and her sister while Renée knows that such supposedly bright lights never see past the net shopping bag she carries, its epicurean food hidden beneath turnips. Both appreciate beauty. What Renée calls “a suspension of time that is the sign of a great illumination,” Paloma experiences while watching a rosebud fall.
The sharp-eyed Paloma guesses that Renée has “the same simple refinement as the hedgehog,” quills on the outside but “fiercely solitary — and terribly elegant” within. The lives of both characters perk up when the rich, mysterious, charmingly attentive Mr. Ozu moves into the building. Not only does he completely renovate his apartment, he does virtually the same to Renee, bringing her new clothes, a new friendship, and a raison d’etre.