An English translation of an international bestseller, I give The Elegance of the Hedgehog a nine. Clever and tragic, and real this book is written from the point of view of a concierge or superintendent of a posh hotel. In Europe where posh flats are kept in the family she, Renee Michel, puts up a front of ridiculous idiocy for over fifteen years to keep the tenants unawares of her high intelligence and indulgences in Art, culture and philosophy. Renee grew up as a dirt poor peasant and has been lucky enough to marry then widowed; left to be the concierge. She spends her time hiding what she is and being as anonymous as possible around her residents when really she is a woman who thrives on culture, philosophy and art.
Interspersed throughout the novel are journal entries of a suicidal eleven-year-old girl named Palona Josse, who lives in the hotel with her insufferable rich family. Polano isn’t your regular wallowing-in-her-own-pathetic-existence suicidal girl; she’s smart and is trying to figure out what there is in the world that is worth living for. She believes that grown-ups live in a metaphorical fish bowl and each person’s life is determinate. Her journey through the book is realizing that people can change, therefore, there is hope.
The underlying theme in this book are the disparities between class, hierarchy or castes in society. The thing I like best about this story is that there is no sensationalism; all the emotional moments are earned. The language is a bit on the higher end with big words and name dropping of famous painters and philosophers but the writing is excellent with great texture. The narrators contemplations are thought-provoking. One of my favorites is when Palona is watching football (or soccer if your American) with her father. She observes a specific player moving by his own will rather than by the wills of other players surrounding him. He owns his existence, his body, his skills and he performs at the top of his ability for this reason. It’s hard to explain but Muriel Barbery does an elegant job.