I recently did a reread of one of my favorite books ever: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. I read it in English – it’s originally written in French. The message came across well enough through the translated text, at least for me. It must be absolutely glorious in its original language though.
Madam Michel, the concierge of a wealthy apartment building, is an “old soul” hiding behind the pretense of a dull janitor. One of the tenants in the building is the Josse family, with their two daughters: Colombe and Palome. The younger, Palome, is planning her suicide. The story follows Madam Michel and Palome as they observe their separate daily lives. One day a new tenant moves in: the Japanese man Kakuro Ozu. Through Kakuro, Madam Michel and Palome befriend each other. They realize they are invariably made of the same inner material.
The story is purposefully slow, like a film on slow motion. It’s full of lengthy expositions on Madam Michel’s thoughts of the bourgeoisie and Palome’s thoughts of the shallow life of adults. I’ll honestly say it’s one of the slowest books I’ve come across. Yet through their perspective of the small things around them, I have learned so much. In that way, it’s really as much a philosophy book as it is fiction. Think Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The author makes plenty of references to literature, art, music, and philosophy. This connects with my liberal arts training back in the States so naturally I feel right at home.
Upon my rereading, I realized I had forgotten how much this book impacted me, to the point that every heroine I now write has a little bit of Palome’s brilliance (and anger!) looking out through their eyes.
Not for Everyone
This book probably isn’t for everyone. It’s challenging, and the ending is as tragic as tragic goes. However, if every once in a while you decide to read something that’s a great introduction to philosophy, art, and the classics, The Elegance of the Hedgehog might be a good place to start. I’ll warn you, I cried as much in the reread as I did the first time around.
By the way, imagine my delight when I found out that between my first and second read, Palome and Madam Michel has hit the big screen!