Monday, August 24, 2009

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

Another book I keep pondering, The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a rare treat--a great story perfectly balanced with allegory. Madame Renee Michel is the brilliant middle-aged concierge in a tony Paris apartment building. She takes great pleasure in making herself appear to be a dull landlady. Madame Michel likes to think she's duping the rich tenants who march proudly past her quarters every day. They don't know that she is an amateur philosopher, an accomplished autodidact with profound thoughts about life and love. Two tenants, the sad twelve year old Paloma and the aesthete Monsieur Kakuro Ozu, manage to see through Madame Michel's charade to her sparkling intellect. Friendships form among the three, and Renee Michel's philosophies of life and love take a beautiful turn. Hedgehog's story of life in a French apartment building can stand on its own: with a light touch, the author shows how the upper and lower classes, colorful characters in both, interact in modern day Paris. The story is entertaining simply for its cultural details (the nosy rich, a refined cleaning lady, delectable tea times). On a broader level, however, The Elegance of the Hedgehog stands firmly as allegory: meaninglessness versus meaning, timelessness versus time, and most important, alienation versus community. This book will make you think about the big picture, and, if you follow its lead, you'll aim squarely for an eternal world of camellia and moss. Meaningfulness, timelessness, and community--these are the important things in life.

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