The novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog (2006) is composed as a collection of essays and diary entries narrated by its two protagonists, Reneé Michel and Paloma Josse. The author, Muriel Barbery, uses two distinct fonts for each narrator, but as the novel progresses, the identity of the person speaking becomes clear without the different fonts. Reneé is a concierge in a high-class Paris apartment building. She lives in a small loge (apartment) on the first floor. She is the essayist. Paloma is a gifted twelve-year-old whose wealthy family lives in the apartment building. She is the diarist. Both narrators are not what they seem to be.
The alternating narratives of Reneé and Paloma reveal the mundane daily lives of the people that live at 7 Rue de Grenelle. Reneé describes the individuals who inhabit her apartment building, their pets, their children, their foibles. Antoine Pallières, for example, is reading Marx. Pierre Arthens, the food critic, writes brilliant restaurant reviews. Monsieur Badoise’s dog Neptune peed on Monsieur Saint-Nice’s leg.
Paloma’s diary records her observations about her family, the concierge Madame Michel (Reneé), the families that live in the apartment building, their pets, their children, their foibles. Madame Josse reads Balzac, quotes Flaubert, and is obsessed with her house plants. The Meurisses’ dog Athena looks like a “skeleton covered over with beige leather hide.” Both narrators’ observations are thus remarkably similar. This is because Reneé and Paloma are kindred spirits. They think alike. Day after day, Reneé ruminates on her views of various philosophers and Paloma jots down daily profound thoughts. Unknown to each other at first, however, these two characters experience the world with parallel minds but not parallel lives.
Outwardly, Reneé appears to be a typical concierge—a working-class woman who has taken over the apartment manager duties from her deceased husband, Lucien. She keeps the television turned on during the day, but she rarely watches it. She is secretly, she says, an autodidact—a self-educated person. She reads philosophy, listens to Mozart, visits art museums, and is fascinated by everything Japanese. As a young child, Reneé taught herself to read. Although she left school at twelve years of age (the same age as that of Paloma) her education is vast and varied, very much in contrast with the wealthy, formally-educated residents of her apartment building. The only one that knows the truth about Reneé is her friend Manuela, who is the maid to several families in the building. Reneé’s husband, Lucien, shared her secret, but he is dead when the novel begins.
Paloma is also an autodidact, and her knowledge rivals that of Reneé. She is much more intelligent and knows far more about music, art, literature, and Japanese culture than anyone suspects. Although she studies Japanese in school, no one realizes she is actually fluent. She, too, has taught herself. Paloma lives with her wealthy parents and older sister, Colombe, a college student. Frustrated, bored, and disgusted with her pampered life, Paloma plans to set the apartment building on fire and kill herself when she turns thirteen.
Midway through the novel, a new tenant moves into the building—Kakuro Ozu. The other residents are oblivious to Reneé’s true nature because they are blinded by the absurd hierarchy of French society, a...
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