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The Elegance of the Hedgehog

July 17, 2009


The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery was originally a book I picked up mostly because it was set in Paris.  Anything set in France and Italy automatically moves up on my scale of how likely I am to enjoy a book. Also somethings set in Canada because, despite being the second largest country in the world, authors just don’t seem to write about us. But I digress.

So, Elegance of the Hedgehog, set in a hotel (really more like an apartment building than a hotel) in Paris. I pick it up, I read the blurb on the inside cover. It sounds interesting, two characters, one an older woman and one a young girl, who are both not what the world thinks they are. What I figured would be an enjoyable read was so much more than that. It blew me away! Moved to laughter, tears, joy, sorrow and every emotion in between, I devoured the book like I hadn’t read in years and was starving for the written word. In fact, I had just finished a nice murder mystery prior to reading “The Elegance of the Hedgehog”, and prior to that had recently finished “War and Peace”. But Muriel Barbery’s characters came to life for me in a way that only the best characters do. You see a bit of yourself in them, you see what you could have been, who you can still be, who you are and how that affects the world in small ways.

The story is written in form of a diary for one character, the young girl Paloma, and in first person point of view of Renee, the older woman. Renee is the concierge for the apartment building which is filled entirely will incredibly rich folk. Paloma is the daughter of one of the rich families. To the rich families, Renee is just the concierge, more a position than a person, most certainly not someone who would have a life and interests of her own. To Renee the rich families and their offspring and spoiled, stuck up, rude and always trying to be so correct and proper while often despising each other that it’s amusing. But both Renee and Paloma have a secret that is hidden under their disguises which they put on because that is what others are expecting of them. They are both incredibly smart and breath books and knowledge the way the rest of us breath air. Seeing the common interest that these two characters from different social classes have one would think that they would make fast friends. Not the way Muriel Barbery writes it. She writes it they way it would be. Both are so used to their disguise and putting it on that they both almost fool each other into not knowing of their shared goal for knowledge. In fact, for the first part of the book they barely interact and yet you can see in each of their points of view that they have so much in common. I turned every page waiting for the time when they would both ‘discover’ each other. But like in life, sometimes routines require a shake for things to change and people to see each other in a different light. In this instance it is a new tenant who sees both woman and child for who they really are and not who they pretend to be.

How often in life have you felt that people don’t see you for who you are, just who they want you to be? I know I’ve felt that way more often than once in my life. Sometimes it makes me want to scream, other times I put on a disguise and just pretend to be what people want me to be.  When I was at art school I always pretended that I loved thai food, indian food, sushi, curry, traditional chinese food (not american chinese food) because that’s what my classmates liked and so that’s what we went out to eat. In fact, I don’t care much for thai food or indian food or curry. It’s way to spicy for me! (I grew up knowing only salt and pepper as dinner food spices and cinnamon for dessert spice.) I acted far more like a tomboy-boy-hick-country-girl-who-has-moose-meat-in-the-freezer than I really was, just because it got their attention it was different and it’s what they expected from me when I told them I was from up North. On the opposite hand, when I go back home to visit my parents and when I see their friends I pretend that I haven’t changed by being in the city. I pretend that I don’t read Tolstoy, love shoes, hate getting dirty, and go to ballets.  Often it feels like it would be easier to just go through life like that, but then the old saying “you can’t please everybody” comes into effect. Like Renee and Paloma, when I found someone who loved all of me, the whole spectrum from cowboy and tomboy to girly and giggly to educated and sophisticated and everything in between, it felt like my life was beginning anew. And that is a wonderful feeling.

What about you? Have you ever put on a disguise to please someone?

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