3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
A delicate and beautiful read.,
This review is from: The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Hardcover)The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery is a story told through two voices.
The first, Renée, is the concierge of a magnificent apartment building, housing some from the higher classes of Paris. Her description of herself is unsympathetic. She is fifty-four, short, ugly, plump and with bunions on her feet.
Renée has developed a persona, adopted a stereotypical manner to fit with how the inhabitants of her building expect her to behave. Yet, beneath this cleverly formed mask, Renée is intelligent, cultured and intuitive. Through a voice that is delicate, rich, sharp and subtle, she observes her advantaged or rather superficial neighbours. Renée pretends to be uneducated, inferior, to match with the expectations of the higher class who live in the building, `to perpetuate the charade of social hierarchy'. She observes the lacking politeness towards her and offers a critique of the higher classes, the conforming to stereotypes, the chosen learning that is recited and never fully understood.
The second voice contrasts and enhances from some floors up within the same apartment building. Twelve year old Paloma Josse is one of the privileged, yet she is disillusioned and keen to avoid an indulged and inane future and so she is planning to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday. Paloma has advanced intelligence and as she plans her suicide, she offers profound thoughts in her diary. Like Renée, Paloma is also living a life filled with deception, masking her actual intelligence but the reasons for this contrast with those of Renée. Through her words, we hear Paloma's views on the inhabitants and on her parents, all with sharp and gifted observation. She offers a social conscience, questioning the empty intelligence of those around her.
The two voices alter with subtle font changes. I must admit that the first font change threw me, perhaps it was too subtle. I was confused and I had to go back and read the blurb. I stopped reading the actual story to try and understand what I had lost. It is perhaps worthy to mention that I didn't want to give up, that the confusion didn't make me want to put the book down. After the realisation of the two voices, I continued knowing and recognising the subtle changes as indicated by font.
For me, the story lifts to a perfect level with an unexpected death and an unexpected sale of an apartment in the building. The arrival of the Japanese Monsieur Kakuro Ozu causes quite a stir. For me, from p139 the story almost restarts with a renewed force, with the clever twisting together of lives and the moving of the plot onto a hugely satisfying level.
Translated by Alison Anderson, there is so much within this novel that is lyrical, remarkable, rich and memorable. The novel contrasts cold language, lacking layers and depths with genuine warmth, emotion and enthusiasm. There is a clear sense that although performing a persona that is expected of her, that protects her, behind the closed door Renée has an emotional and cultural depth that the other, more privileged, could never reach.
I am left considering that sometimes in life we go into situations with expectations, with an inability to see beyond masks and into true beings. There are many who go through life with prejudices that never allow truth and individuality to shine. Beyond convention, beyond exteriors, beneath the mask, there is often so much more.
The delicacy and the beauty in this novel comes from the joining of Renée, of Kakuro and of Paloma. As Kakuro ignores social hierarchy and sees beneath Renée's mask, there is a sense of nakedness and of purity. He challenges social prejudice and his ability to see true, inner beauty is a gift. There is a belief that when you see into a person's soul, then your connection is blessed.
This is a truly delicate and beautiful story of friendship across class and across generation. The ending left me in tears.