Renee Michel is, at first glance, a nondescript middle-aged concierge of an apartment building in Paris. But she cultivates that image, and underneath her purposely plain exterior is a quick, intelligent brain. She uses her job as a way to hide her vibrant interest in philosophy, books, movies, and beauty. Upstairs lives a 12-year-old girl named Paloma who has determined to kill herself on her thirteenth birthday because she cannot handle being so disdained and undervalued. Both of their lives are set on a collision course when one of the upstairs neighbors falls ill and everything in the apartment building begins to change.
It’s hard to review a book in which I really disliked the first 100 pages and loved the following 200. At first it just seemed consumed with philosophy. Nothing was happening, Renee was constantly musing about things I don’t understand or particularly care about, and Paloma was completely doom and gloom about her life and her family. Honestly, I don’t like philosophy and never have. It just seems like a lot of musing about nothing particularly interesting. And then the neighbor died, and someone else moved in who changed everything. And somehow the characters’ musings became about life, and love, and missed opportunities, and caring what you do in the world. They became more relevant and more interesting.
It’s hard to go on without spoiling why this book became great. It’s when the characters collide that it happens, and they recognize in themselves people that are just like them. It’s a shout-out against the class system and defies Renee’s idea that because she began life as a poor woman, that rich people will always harm her and take advantage of her. It does its little bit to show that people are all just people and we never know what’s going on in someone else’s head. I’m not sure the ending didn’t really take away that message, that association with rich people will harm poor people, but it really moved me. It made me wonder if Barbery was reflecting on the way things are in France at the moment. I’ve never been there, so I don’t know how strong the class system still is, but reviews online (and this book) seem to suggest that it is still very present.
Anyway, I would really recommend The Elegance of the Hedgehog, I’d just suggest to stick to it a little longer than you might a normal book. It’s fairly short, but it is quite a touching journey.
I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book for free for review from the publisher.