A friend of mine had read this in her book club, based upon a recommendation I had made. I was quite surprised; I don't even remember recommending the book when I was in said book club! (I had to drop out due to work commitments). But I guess someone had seen it on my bookshelf, and thought it would be a great book to read.
I had picked it up at Borders because of the subject material. It takes place in Paris, at an apartment building at 7, rue de Grenelle. Renée Michel is the building's concièrge: a modest widow who goes to great lengths to conceal her intelligence. On the outside, she is poor, homely, and aloof. But take a look inside her apartment and you'll see copies of works by Proust, Marx, and other great philosophers. She quotes from such works of literature as Anna Karenina, and is very familiar with classics of the American cinema, especially Gone With the Wind.
Paloma Josse is a twelve-year-old girl living in Madame Michel's building. She is a member of France's upper class, la bourgeoisie. Her father is a member of parliament, her mother has an advanced degree in literature, and her older sister, Colombe, is a philosophy student at the École Normale Supérieure. Like Madame Michel, Paloma strives to conceal her intelligence, but, unlike Madame Michel, she is not always successful; she still earns high marks at her school. Paloma is a withdrawn child, one who plans to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday, and then burn her family's apartment.
The first half of the book alters its narrative between Madame Michel and Paloma. Each character has their own unique way of looking at the world. Madame Michel was born to a family of poor laborers, and her upbringing has greatly affected her perception of people. Paloma was born under opposite circumstances; however, she is not very fond of being rich. She is almost embarrassed by it. Her narratives, while slightly tinged with the sort of drama only a twelve-year-old can provide, are still very deep and profound, and very mature for her age. Both Madame Michel and Paloma quote philosophers to support their opinions, and use colorful metaphors to describe what they see. For example, here's Paloma's first impression of Madame Michel:
Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside, she's covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary--and terribly elegant. (p. 143)
Neither Madame Michel nor Paloma interact with each other much, if at all, until a wealthy Japanese man moves into the building. Karuko Ozu soon befriends both ladies: Paloma, because of her love for Japanese culture (especially manga), and Renée, for her love of Tolstoy. Their friendship with Karuko helps them through some difficult times: Paloma, through her adolescent struggles, and Renée, with an incident that has haunted her since childhood.
The friend who had read the book before I did advised me to have a dictionary next to me as I read the text. While I didn't have it next to me the whole time I read the book, it is still a good thing to have on hand. I learned lots of new vocabulary just from the first half of the book alone.
Additionally, the first half is packed with lots of intellectual and philosophical material. You will need to pause after reading a few chapters. Fortunately, each of the chapters are very brief. Once you've digested what you've read, keep going, but slowly. The Elegance of the Hedgehog is like a rich chocolate dessert; you can't gobble it up within five minutes. The pace of the book picks up in the second half, though, and once it starts, you don't want to put it down. The characters in this book are very well-developed, and their eloquence and ability to articulate is amazing.
So far, this is the best piece of fiction I've read all year. I like any book where the protagonists stay with you for a long time, and I certainly will keep Renée, Paloma, and Karuko very close to me.
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