Muriel Barbery’s novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog has me thinking about the ways plausibility and realism aren’t necessarily that important in fiction. Sometimes, with certain kinds of books, yes, they are important, as some books set up an expectation that the events they describe could possibly happen and the characters in them are ones you could possibly meet. But sometimes all that is just beside the point, and I think that’s true in Barbery’s book. As I read the first few pages I felt some resistance because the voices were unfamiliar and the feelings the characters described struck me as odd and unbelievable. But as I read on I began to change my mind, and by the time I reached the middle I was entirely won over and stayed won over all the way through.
There are two narrators in this novel, and the book moves back and forth between them. We start with Renée, a woman in her 50s who works as a concierge for a building populated by wealthy families. She looks and behaves exactly as people seem to expect a concierge will look and behave — dumpy, unattractive, slow, uneducated — but secretly she spends her free time reading literature and philosophy and watching art films. She is remarkably intelligent and knowledgeable, but is determined no one will ever find that out. She is lonely, with only one friend who visits her regularly, but she prefers to be lonely than to risk the kind of meaningful interaction with other people that terrifies her. So she puts on a blank face and mangles grammar whenever any of the building’s residents are nearby and labors her way through Edmund Husserl and phenomenology when she is alone.
The other narrator is one of the building’s residents; she is 12 year-old Paloma, also utterly brilliant, who hates her family, hates her prospects in life, and plans to kill herself on her thirteenth birthday. She has thought this through carefully and sees nothing else for it but suicide. She is a much-smarter version of Holden Caulfield — she sees the phoniness of the world around her and loathes the phony adults in her life, most particularly her mother and sister, and refuses to join in. Her narrative sections take two forms; one is made up of her “profound thoughts,” in which she records her best thinking so she can do something valuable with her life before it’s over, and the other is called “The Journal of the Movement of the World,” in which she makes a point of focusing on the body so as not to get too caught up in the mind. Here, she records moments of physical beauty.
Until fairly late in the book, these two characters know of each other only in the vaguest way, and they could hardly be more different in their place in life and their age and appearance, but they turn out to have similar preoccupations and ways of thinking. And here is where we get to the book’s real charm — the ideas these two characters explore and the meaning they try to make out of life. This is really a philosophical novel about the quest to understand how best to live, how to make meaning and find beauty, and how to reconcile the coexistence of beauty and suffering. What makes these ideas so interesting is that you come to care about the people thinking them — over the course of the novel their struggles move from abstract philosophical problems to vital personal ones that you feel you yourself have a stake in solving.
I loved the fact that this novel isn’t afraid to be a novel of ideas — it’s unabashedly philosophical. One of the things that makes it so interesting, I think, is that it combines passages of abstract thought with a focus on the physical world and sections that capture the comedy of bodily life. It never gets so abstract it leaves its real people with their real bodies behind. Renée is particularly amusing in this way; as long as she is caught up in her thoughts, she is comfortable, but as soon as anyone reminds her of her physical being, she is flustered and lost and messes everything up. Both narrators are exquisitely aware of the physical world around them, even if they aren’t always comfortable in it, so the book manages to be both cerebral and down-to-earth at once.
And the book is beautifully-written as well. The only criticism I’ve heard of this book that made me pay any attention at all is that its characters aren’t realistic, but given all the wonderful things to be found in this book, I don’t think that matters one bit.