What is the worth of true understanding and intelligence, and more importantly what should one do if they have it? In The Elegance of the Hedgehog by French philosopher Muriel Barbery, both Renee and Paloma have drastically different answers. Renee is a concierge at an upper class apartment house. She sees the world as a land of stereotypes, and because of that only attempts to defy those stereotypes in her private life. She has read the great works from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina to Marx’s The German Idealogy, and watches Japanese art films for fun, but appears to the world as fat, TV watching, nobody. Paloma is a twelve year old, who lives with her family in one of Renee’s apartments. She appears to the world as an average intelligent young woman, even as she actively hides just how smart she is while she silently judges everyone around her. She has observed the world and decided that adult life is meaningless, and not worth living. She is determined to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday, if she cannot find something worth living for before then.
Renee and Paloma complement each other wonderfully, and I found the voice of these characters one of the most entertaining parts of the book. Both are so condescending and arrogant, but not in your typical public way. Both think that they have life figured out, and until a Japanese man named Ozu makes an appearance, the rest of the world was doing a pretty bad job of proving them wrong. Though I do feel obligated that this sort of does fall into a trope I do not love of it taking a man being the one to change the view point of two female characters, though credit is given for how intelligent both the female characters are.
Another awesome part of this book is that the philosophy is fascinating. Both Paloma and Renee have very distinct but at times similar worldviews. They constantly poke at the illogical decisions of the people around them, and the moments when they play off each other never failed to make me smile. My warning to readers is that this book is not plot heavy. The beginning half of the book is mostly character development, exposition, and philosophical musings. Though I would highly recommend this to anyone willing to do a lot of thinking and couple Google searches when Renee uses some of her more technical words.