Madame Michel, in Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, does her best to keep it that way by playing the stereotypical concierge. She wears a dumpy house dress. She’s sullen and ill-mannered. Though she never watches TV, she leaves it on so her employers can hear it. In order not to cross class boundaries, she plays dumb. “…it is always good to read from the social script to which we owe our allegiance…,” she says, and this is her creed.
But with the mind of a great scholar, Madame Michel is anything but ordinary.
Paloma, a 12-year-old girl who lives in the hotel with her family, is preparing to commit suicide on her 13th birthday. She’s the opposite of depressed, so certain of her intellectual superiority (she calls herself “supersmart”) that she believes nothing in the world can interest her enough to make her want to live. Paloma, too, is anything but ordinary.
In alternating chapters, these two narrators ruminate on everything from phenomenology to psychology. If you’re looking for action this is not your book. It’s a novel of perceptions, philosophies and preconceptions, a book to savor. It might be dull if the characters didn’t speak with such individual attitudes, but their thoughts on the super rich, those who serve them, and maintaining the status quo make this a fine read.
Madame Michel is a self-proclaimed “proletarian autodidact,” which gives you an idea of the language you’ll find throughout the novel. The prose is tasty and mushy, like a cake made with fine chocolate and a bit of cream. Big words belong in this kind of novel. It’s fun, rather than distracting, to look up a few, because it makes sense that the characters would talk this way. And there are many scenes for which one wants the best descriptors.
Paloma opens each diary entry with a “Profound Thought.” Chapter by chapter she examines the world, but can’t come up with a reason to stay here. “Maybe I’m the symptom of the family contradiction, and so I’m the one who has to disappear, if the family is to prosper.” It’s the ultimate description of what it means to be the black sheep of the family.
Madame Michel finds beauty——not in everything, but everywhere (she does fret over a misplaced comma). She and Paloma are aware of each other, but a concierge’s job is to sign for packages, pick up dry cleaning and water plants, not to initiate contact or pass judgment. Their paths don’t cross until late in the book.
When one of the residents dies, his family sells the apartment to a rich, Japanese businessman. Everyone is excited to meet Monsieur Kakuro Ozu, and Monsieur Ozu is worth their interest. He befriends Paloma and is the only person in the building besides Paloma who really sees Madame Michel.
“Were you acquainted with the Arthens? I have heard they were quite an extraordinary family,” he says.
“No, I reply,” on my guard, “I didn’t really know them, they were just another family here.”
“Yes, a happy family,” says Madame Rosen, who, visibly, is getting impatient.
“You know, all happy families are alike,” I mutter, to have done with this business. “There’s nothing more to it.”
“’Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,’” he says, giving me an odd look all of a sudden, even if it’s not for the first time, I shudder.
Madame Michel and Monsieur Ozu have together spoken the famous first line of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Madame is found out, at least by Monsieur Ozu, as more than just a middle-aged serving woman.
Kakuro Ozu speaks to Paloma as an adult. He invites Madame Michel to dinner in his apartment and cooks for her, and she finds herself completely comfortable with him. It is through him that each woman sees herself, because he sees them both as his equals.
When Madame accepts Monsieur Ozu’s invitation to dine in a restaurant, the residents don’t recognize her walking out of the building on his arm. They have never looked at her, and perhaps she hasn’t looked at herself. But she does, finally, through the eyes of those few who see her clearly, and at last, she recognizes her worth.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, translated from the French by Alison Anderson.
The book is now a film, though abbreviated and called The Hedgehog or Le Hérisson (2011):
Petrea Burchard is a Pasadena photographer, blogger, actress, voice-over talent and author. Her story “Portraits” is included in Literary Pasadena (Prospect Park Books, 2013). She contributes book reviews to Hometown Pasadena, for which we and our readers are very grateful. Find more Petrea doings, writings, and photography at PetreaBurchard.com and LivingVicuriously.
Camelot & Vine can be bought locally at Vroman’s, the Pasadena Museum of History, Webster’s Fine Stationers in Altadena and the Flintridge Bookstore and Coffeeshop. The ebook version is available for Kindle, Nook, iBooks, Kobo, Diesel, Smashwords, and the Sony eReader.