12.16–The Elegance of the Hedgehog

I was extremely hesitant when starting this book. I had been meaning to read it for a while, as half a dozen friends and acquaintances recommended it. When my book club selected it as July’s book, I finally checked it out from the library and dove in.  At first I had difficulty picking it up. The beginning seems sluggish. The language is so lofty and the words so long that my eyes had trouble getting them to my brain. But once I really got rolling with it, I’d have to say that I absolutely loved it! It could possibly be one of my new favorite books.

The best word I can think of to describe it is intelligent.  The novel is written from the point of view of two very different but extremely intelligent women–one older and one very young. Madame Renée Michele is the concierge of an upscale apartment building in Paris.  She spends her days believing that the exorbitantly wealthy people who populate her building only regard her in one way–as a sloppy, uneducated servant. Mme Michele is happy to keep them in the dark about her true character. In reality, she is a well-read woman who loves Leo Tolstoy, philosophy, and the films of Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu. Paloma Josse is a twelve year old girl who has decided that she will commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday.  The world is entirely too mundane for her taste and is full of dunces who cannot live up to her standards. The reader gets Renée’s perspective from numbered chapters while Paloma’s comes from diary entries labeled “Profound Thoughts” and “The Journal of the Movement of the World.” When a new resident moves into the building, both of their lives and perspectives take major hits and are altered forever. Paloma begins to suspect that Renée is more than she seems and sets about investigating with her new neighbor.

Both of these woman are incredible characters, prone to rather outrageous fits of their odd indulgences.  Renée is a self-depricating woman who lives in constant fear that the secret of her intelligence may be discovered, while Paloma seeks always to find one reason to remain alive–a pursuit which constantly disappoints her. The comedy and absurdity of their positions is persistently cut with the rather serious internal monologues analyzing whatever small point they happen to be thinking of or expostulating.  I confess, sometimes my eyes had difficulty staying focused on the page. One “big word” followed another and at times the reading got thick and difficult. Still, most of the time I found myself nodding my head in agreement, raising my eyebrows with interest, or “hmmmmm”ing with some new insight. Though fictional women, they managed to educated me on a few things, and gave me fresh perspective of things I rarely think about. Also, Renée scrambling to hide her intelligence made me snort with laughter once or twice. She is, to quote a friend, hysterical.

For a long time it seems to be a book about relatively minor events in the lives of thoughtful people. Eventually, the plot picks up and crescendos to its fantastic conclusion.  By the novel’s midway point I was devouring it, never wanting to put it down.  Though it is slow to start, the novel is brilliant and delightful to read. Paloma and Renée are characters that are easy to love.  I feel that this novel has not received the attention that it deserves, though it may be too sluggish for the masses.  It is a book much better read for its philosophy and humor than for its highly eventful plot line. For those that appreciate a somewhat absurd and often morbid humor, as well as somewhat rambling thought processes (neither of which are tedious or unenjoyable in this novel, at least), please do yourself a favor and read this book.


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