I’ve just this minute finished reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog. I was really looking forward to it because I was so enchanted by the cover. All those old shabby-grand houses with sash windows all lit up – just my cup of tea. Disconcertingly though, I found the book really hard to get into.
The story alternates between the narratives of Renée, the dumpy concierge for a luxurious Paris apartment building, and Paloma, the precocious twelve-year old whose wealthy family live in one of the apartments. Renée lives for literature, art and music but she goes to considerable lengths to hide her intelligence from her employers. Meanwhile, Paloma intends to burn her family’s apartment down and commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday, before she becomes like the dead-eyed adults that surround her. Then, a mysterious Japanese gentleman moves into the apartment building, ruffling many a feather and turning the heads of both Renée and Paloma.
I think I struggled to get into the book mainly because both Paloma and Renée struck me as drearily pretentious. I could appreciate that Paloma’s adolescent self-indulgence had a ring of truth to it, but I still found the narrative a little bit laborious. Muriel Barbery spends a long time setting the scene and I started to get a bit fidgety after a while, wondering when something was going to happen, even though I’m not someone who needs a lot of action in books usually. I’m not really sure what I was expecting from the book, but halfway through I definitely felt a little disappointed.
Still, The Elegance of the Hedgehog won me over in the end, and definitively so. The finale, which was so unexpected, actually moved me to tears. The characters grew on me, albeit slowly, and the things that frustrated me about them in the beginning made perfect sense by the end. It’s quite a beautiful book really, and there’s a lot of truth in it, although I did feel like the plot was meandering on for a bit too long before things got interesting. An uneven read, then, but with some really excellent moments and an ending which silences most of my criticisms.