The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5

The two main characters in Muriel Barbery’s novel have a tendency to ponder lofty issues: “What is the nature of human consciousness? What do we know of the world?” muses 54-year-old Madame Michel. And then they address them. At length. (“Let’s start with the first question…”) Barbery likes aphorisms, too: “Grammar is a way to attain beauty,” states Paloma Josse, 12. Yet the book, a huge best-seller in Barbery’s native France, almost never comes across like a lecture in disguise (unlike Jostein Gaarder’s philosophically minded Sophie’s World, for instance), because the connective tissue between the various pearls of wisdom feels genuinely novelistic.

Madame Michel is the concierge in the posh Parisian building where Paloma lives. The older woman, a “proletarian autodidact,” takes great pains to disguise her sharp intellect and refined tastes from the people she serves, but Paloma, a misanthropic prodigy planning to kill herself when she turns 13, is too mired in self-absorption to realize a kindred soul actually lives a few floors below her. For most of the book they cross each other but don’t see each other; it takes the arrival of a new tenant, Kakuro Ozu, to open everybody’s eyes, minds and hearts (the author isn’t above a certain sentimentality).

The aforementioned two queries, tossed off in an early chapter about phenomenology (yeah, it’s that kind of novel), actually lead up to one of Barbery’s essential concerns: What is our purpose in life? It takes her many digressions to reach a conclusion, but by the end of the book you realize that the process is part of the point: It’s not so much beauty that provides a reason for living, but the constant search for it.

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By Muriel Barbery. Translated by Alison Anderson. Europa Editions, $15.95 paperback.