The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

I enjoyed this book a lot!

Two outcasts, both living in a luxury Parisian apartment building, take turns to share snippets from their lifes.

The first of the aforementioned outcasts is Renée Michel, the building’s 54 year-old concierge. Renée is a cultured autodidact who lives a life of solitude and hides her true self from others, even her only friend. While putting low-quality TV on high volume, for the sake of keeping up the appearance of what she thinks the residents expect from a concierge, she spends her time in her backroom reading philosophy and listening to opera.

The second of our outcasts is Paloma Josse, an intellectually precocious 12 year-old and daughter of one of the building’s most bourgeois of families. Paloma dislikes the snobbery she lives amongst and believes life to be meaningless. She plans to commit suicide on her 13th birthday, burning the building down in the process. In the lead up to her birthday, she keeps notes of her “profound thoughts”.

Paloma is the only resident who suspects that there’s more to Renée than she lets on. When Kakuro Ozu, a Japanese businessman, moves into the building, they connect and agree on the following:

Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside she is covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary–and terrible elegant.

I was willing for our outcasts to come together throughout the book and, eventually, they do. Their reflections on life are moving, humourous, and, at times, heartbreaking. In each other, they find kindred spirits who are able to teach other lessons no one else could:

I have finally concluded, maybe that’s what life is about: there’s a lot of despair, but also the odd moment of beauty, where time is no longer the same. It’s as if those strains of music created a sort of interlude in time, something suspended, an elsewhere that had come to us, an always within never. Yes, that’s it, an always within never.

I found the characters fascinating, I think anyone who has ever retreated away from the world could relate to them and find hope in this story.

A common criticism I found in reviews before diving in was the book’s “surface level” presentation of philosophy. However, for someone like me, with extremely little knowledge on the subject, I find the way philosophy was woven into the story interesting and accessible. It sparked an interest and made me want to learn more.

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