The Elegance of the Hedgehog / Muriel Barbery.

This novel is set in an elegant apartment building in central Paris.  In fact, the action rarely steps outside its confines.  Its two main characters live there in very different circumstances.  Renee Michel is the building’s concierge.  Short, plain looking, and plump, to the outside world she presents herself as dull and cantankerous.  But behind closed doors, Renee lets her true light shine.  This fifty-four year old woman has a keen interest in art, philosophy, classical music, and is an avid reader of the classics.  Paloma Josse, on the other hand, is a twelve-year old living on the building’s fifth floor.  Like the rest of the tenants, her family is rich and she has grown up in the lap of luxury.  But this pre-teen also has a secret.  She is extremely intelligent, although she goes to great lengths to hide the fact.  Precocious, Paloma has already come to the conclusion that life is meaningless and she is planning to kill herself on her thirteenth birthday.  With biting wit, humor, and dollops of philosophical musings, these two characters share the spotlight as they recount their lives and observe the lives of their neighbors.  It takes a third individual, a new tenant in the building, to bring Renee and Paloma out of their shell and blossom.

There is much about the book to praise.  The writing presents eloquent little essays on the meaning of life.  It has thoughtful, informative commentary on art, literature, and music.  The two main characters are interesting and likable.  But occasionally these same praises are also negatives.  Sometimes I just wanted to yell, “lighten up already.”  All the talk about “art” began to feel overblown and is narrowly focused.  Renee and Paloma are in some ways as big of snobs as the rich people they secretly mock.   These quibbles aside, for discriminating tastes, this book will most likely be a delight.  It is nice for a change to read a novel that appeals to both the intellect and the heart.


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