The Elegance of the Hedgehog is about social class, age, desire, the search for beauty in a dangerous world where ugly things happen, redemption, and the decision of how to live and die. All this, and it is still a simply told story that takes place in the confines of an expensive Paris apartment building. It is told from the alternating view points of the building’s fifty-four-year-old female concierge, and a precocious twelve-year-old girl tenant who is suicidal, both searching for life’s meaning.
Separately, both reveal themselves as intellectuals who seek and appreciate beauty and art. Both are self-enclosed souls who feel unable to openly express themselves because they will surely be misjudged or vilified. The concierge, Renée, only feels safe in her apartment where she hides her books by Marx and privately ruminates on the superiority of Dutch painters and their contribution to spatial consonance. Paloma, the girl, hides in the corners of her family’s four thousand square foot apartment. She observes her family through her self-approved moral authority, and reasons out her planned death to leave this ugly, consumer-based world, thus giving her family reason to be more concerned about the senseless deaths of Africans in the news.
No doubt the two have their delusions, but their sincerity and the clarity of Barbery’s writing make them sympathetic characters. The two begin to awkwardly interact and are changed further by a new tenant, a Japanese filmmaker who is described as combining “childish enthusiasm and candor with the attentiveness and kindliness of an old sage.” Unaware of his influence, Kakuro Ozu simply is. Confident and able to openly express himself, he lays bare the assumptions of class, wealth, age, and redemption as he lives and creates beauty in his life. His presence forces the females to confront the issues that entrap their lives.
It is a “quiet” book of ideas. Barbery questions intention, class rigidity, age stereotypes, self-imposed martyrdom, the need for beauty, consumerism, purpose of education, self-honesty, the reason art exists, desire. Well, a lot of things. Yet, underneath all the very French intellectual emotionalism, is the movement of a story that does not get tediously bogged down. It is more like entering a person’s head and discovering an inner battle of what she was and where she came from and trying to resolve that with who she is now and what that has done to her. Standoffs are best served by a respected third party that does not tell, but instead loves. Someone like Ozu always unravels everything so carefully put in place.