“People aim for the stars, and they end up like goldfish in a bowl. I wonder if it wouldn’t be simpler just to teach children right from the start that life is absurd.” The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
Reneé Michel and Paloma Josse live very different lives. Reneé is a poor concierge alone in the world apart from her cat Leo and her friend Manuela. Paloma is the teenage daughter of bored, bourgeois parents who plans to kill herself before her thirteenth birthday. Both are fiercely intelligent and determined to hide it from the world at all costs and manage to do so until a stranger moves into the apartment blocks and their worlds begin to change.
It’s not difficult to see why The Elegance of The Hedgehog has received such wide acclaim and been translated into so many languages. The parallel narratives of Reneé and Paloma are quietly compelling, the characterisation is fresh and the story is darkly hilarious. Written by a professor of philosophy it contains the best summary of phenomenology that I have ever read (“nothing more than the solitary, endless monologue of consciousness, a hard-core autism that no real cat would ever importune.”) and for all the main characters’ intellectual status, they retain a warmth and humanity that sets them apart from the intellectual snobbery and false superiority of the social elite that surrounds them.
It would make a great read at any time, but an especially wonderful read if you’re visiting Paris.