The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

This is already my favorite book I have read this year. Sure, it’s a little bit far into the year for me to start thinking about the books I loved, but this Wes Anderson-y story about a smart young woman planning her demise in the opening pages captured me from the opening sentences and evoked a colorful cast of middle-class characters living in a Hercule Poirotian eight-unit condo building at 7 Rue de Grenelle on the Left Bank. I had this on my Kindle for quite some time having bought it on a daily deal for cheap a few years ago, but as with every one of these impulse purchases, it sat unread as my Kindle and real-life TBR started piling up and up and up. Some of the best books, sometimes, are hidden in that pile of haven’t-quite-gotten-to-yet. 

Barbery’s novel features two autodidact protagonists – our well-read, suicidal twelve-year-old Paloma, and the mid-fifties concierge of almost forty years, Renee. The workings of the relationships of the inhabitants, especially the curiosity surrounding the Japanese businessman Kakuro and his valet moving in, are only partially the meat of the book… It is through the characterization, the painting of the social and cultural daily atmosphere of 7 Rue de Grenelle, and the philosophical musings of what Paloma outwardly and Renee inwardly meditate on that have led them to their current sphere of life. The plot is mainly secondary to Barbery’s very French and very existentialist mural, and the well-read brilliance of Paloma and Renee carries the momentum in the delicious, indulgent chapters on life. Could this turn a lot of readers off? Of course, but I was entirely here for it. 

This novel will certainly carry me through the rest of Barbery’s catalog, and I am at least hoping that the translator for the texts is the same and keeps a similar style in their personal transition from the French. A lovely book that holds a mirror to everything I find charming in Wes Anderson or Charlie Kaufman’s quirky and endlessly magnetic characters – these are my people, and I love hanging out with them. 

“The Chilterns” by Tony Monblat, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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