Gather ’round, everyone, it’s time once again for Jenny to loathe a bestselling novel that everyone else in the whole world adores!
The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery, is about Renée, the downtrodden, frumpy concierge in a high-class Parisian apartment building. The two narrators of the story are Renée herself and Paloma, a twelve-year-old girl who is a resident of one of the apartments. Both of them are hiding the same secret: they are highly intelligent autodidacts, interested in literature, art, philosophy, movement, beauty, and many other things in the world. Of course, this brings them endless, hidden joy and connection with so many others who share these interests. No! Ha ha! I’m kidding! This makes them both isolated and miserable (Paloma is planning suicide on her thirteenth birthday), and they both despise everyone around them.
Renée spends her narrative episodes explaining the pointlessness, meaninglessness, and banality of the lives of the wealthy people in her building. They buy things! And… other things! Usually in multiples, like nightstands and bedside lamps! They see psychiatrists, that’s how you can tell they live meaningless lives. They study ridiculous philosophy! Oh, wait, Renée also studies philosophy. Well, it’s meaningful and life-giving when she studies it, but it’s “meaningless simpering” when that rich girl studies it. Also, these people don’t look past the surface or get to know her, so they don’t know she has a rich inner life. She doesn’t know them, either, but she can tell by looking that they don’t have rich inner lives. The poor are also beneath contempt, in case you were wondering. They don’t love their children, they communicate in “grunts and gestures,” and they despise other poor people. Oh, and the ignorant! Even worse! The occasional comma error sends her into a frenzy of shuddering: how can people be so bestial?
Paloma is equally contemptuous of those around her: her parents, her sister Colombe, her sister’s boyfriend, her classmates at school. The purpose of her journal entries is to try to find a reason for living before her intended birthday suicide, but everyone and everything is just so boring and corrupt: the education system, the government, her parents trying to get her therapy. She plans to set her apartment on fire. Terrific.
So far, so revolting. I found both these characters just gratingly annoying. Both used their intelligence as a bludgeon to hate and mock others with, and it seemed to be the expectation of the author that the reader would find this an endearing and understandable trait. Aha! A brilliant analysis of the class system in France! Yes! That is how we intelligent people must live — truly alone! Well, I don’t think so.
About two-thirds of the way through the book, a new person moves into the apartment building: a Japanese gentleman named Mr. Ozu. He is very cultured, intelligent, and kind. He immediately sees through the veneer of dowdiness and ignorance Renée and Paloma have created, and reaches out in friendship. They blossom! They instantly become close friends! How heartwarming. Yes?
The message of this book is that if you are exactly like Renée and Paloma, you’re a good person, and if you’re different in the slightest degree, you’re banal, pretentious, shallow, or disgusting somehow. Mr. Ozu is just like Renée. He has the same obsession with Tolstoy (his cat is named Kitty, a detail I did find genuinely great), a connection to her favorite filmmaker, the same love of Dutch painting. And therefore he is perfect. No one else gets the same treatment, not even her friend of thirty years, Manuela, who is “an aristocrat of the heart” but gets condescension around vocabulary. I know the end is supposed to show this big joyful moment of connection, but actually these characters don’t grow at all.
Oh, and speaking of vocabulary, I know this is a translation from the French (by Alison Anderson), but the language is so cringey. It’s extremely flowery and over-erudite; she never uses a twenty-five cent word when a five-Euro word will do. (I kept thinking of the quotation from Lolita when Humbert Humbert says, “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.”) There are long, digressive passages on philosophy (including one in which she says, “phenomenology is a fraud,” and then goes on to explain what it is for four pages. Honestly.) And the translation itself is moderately lumpy, with the French showing through. There are at least four or five examples of words being misused, and coming from someone who nearly has a fit over the difference between “bring” and “take,” that’s hard to stomach.
So. I hated it. That being said, every reviewer on earth disagreed with me, and it was a huge bestseller in France and also a NYT bestseller. Perhaps you liked it! Perhaps you will tell me how wrong I am, in the comments! I’m as ready as a hedgehog; fire away.