The Elegance of the Hedgehog is one of the books which have been on my radar for years. As a big fan of characters with quirky personalities it’s naturally cropped up as a related item during many of my book searches. Yet, it took a friend forcefully lending it to me before I finally set down and read it. And it was simply fantastic.
For Renee, a middle-aged concierge in an apartment for the wealthy, society’s rules for the social classes and our destiny are the only things we can fulfill. Yet, as a barely educated girl from the countryside who calls a T.V. remote a “secular rosary,” you are immediately aware that Renee is a brilliant sort. Her contemplative analysis of life and deep appreciation for arts and culture can feel overwhelming but endearing. Her practical and simple nature endears her to you, and through this character Barbery covers many philosophical, artistic, and literary topics in a very understandable and accessible way. After all, one of Renee’s favourite movies of all time is Blade Runner, while she’s also very fond of Anna Karenina.
The other protagonist is Paloma, a 12-year-old girl and one of the residents in the building where Renee works. I admit it: I don’t like Paloma. The novel swaps between Renee’s inner monologues and Paloma’s diary entries. I found Paloma’s entries rather annoying because often I was greatly enjoying Renee’s company until she shows up suddenly with her preteen angst. Don’t get me wrong, Paloma is rather brilliant herself, but I don’t think she’s as smart as she believes she is. Thus, she never really endeared herself to me. My annoyance also stems out of the fact that the translated version of the book by Europa Books alternates the font type for Renee and Paloma. Renee’s is a standard serif font, but Paloma’s is Arial, a san serif. I’m rather picky about typography—especially when it affects the reading experience! The change of the font is rather dramatic and because of that it distracted me from the story at hand most of the time. I’d just become conscious of the fact that the font changed rather than be swept up in the plot. Plus, san serif bugs me.
“Language is a bountiful gift and its usage, an elaboration of community and society, is a sacred work. Language and usage evolve over time: elements change, are forgotten or reborn, and while there are instances where transgression can become the source of an even greater wealth, this does not alter the fact that to be entitled to the liberties of playfulness or enlightened misusage when using language, one must first and foremost have sworn one’s total allegiance.”
Young Paloma who has such lofty thoughts as, “pity the poor in spirit who know neither the enchantment nor the beauty of language.”
At times Renee becomes so verbose and philosophical that my eyes cross. Yet Barbery brings years of academic and philosophical grandiosity into one tale of a concierge and a 12-year-old girl who are both looking for something in life. Definitely worth picking up.