The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book is not for everyone, but I loved it. I already knew that the action didn't really pick up until the middle of the book, and I did find it a little slow going at first, but is was well worth my patience. When you take an elegant apartment for the very wealthy in the middle of Paris, pair it with a 12 year old genius who is hiding her light under a bushel and plans to commit suicide on her 13th birthday, and then throw in what seems to be a cantankerous old concierge who appears to only watch television all day, but who is secretly an autodidact who loves art, philosophy, and Oriental culture you have something that ought not to work, but does splendidly.
Most of the wealthy inhabitants of the building lead boring and predictable lives, and 12 year old Paloma refuses to join their ranks. She is a competent scholar, but knows that even in school her brilliant mind will not be appreciated. She is planning to wait only until her 13th birthday to see if, just possibly, there is more to look forward to than the lives she sees around her.
Renée, the concierge was raised in abject poverty and ignorance and she was cursed with a brilliant and cultured mind that had no possibility for expression. She had to hide her mind in what little schooling she had and eventually found her way into a job where her brilliance again had to be hidden from everyone in the building. What does a peasant do with a brilliant mind? Renee chose to hide hers by leaving the television on while she was hiding her bedroom reading Proust.
Nothing seemed to change until Japanese man named Ozu arrived in the building. He was able to sense the secrets in Renee and Paloma and carefully create an environment where their true natures could be expressed. As I look back at the book, I think Mr. Ozu could be called a “people whisperer.” He was able to create an environment where each of these two lonely people could be herself. But this is not an ordinary “feel good” book. It is much too close to reality for that. I don’t think anyone who finishes this book will ever be the same.
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