Wednesday, January 9, 2013
Have you met the characters of “The Elegance of the Hedgehog”? They are misfits who feel forced to hide their true identities. They are both afraid of revealing too much about themselves. We learn all about their intimate thoughts from the journals they write. Hence, the story, written in first person, is very compelling.
Renée is a fifty-four year old widow, a concierge who lives with her cat. Like her cat, she avoids all social gatherings. She describes herself as ugly, short and plump; polite, but not friendly. She never went to college, but she probably read more books than any college graduate. She is an autodidact who devours art, philosophy, music and movies. Above all, she loves literature. How refreshing it is to read her words when she introduces herself and slaps the readers with this comment:
“Let me explain it: if, thus far, you have imagined that the ugliness of ageing and conciergely widowhood have made a pitiful wretch of me, resigned to the lowliness of her fate—then you are truly lacking in imagination. I have withdrawn, to be sure, and refuse to fight. But within the safety of my own mind, there is no challenge I cannot accept. I may be indigent in name, position, and appearance, but in my own mind I am an unrivalled goddess.”
There is a gifted twelve year old girl, Paloma, who believes that life is absurd and harbors secret plans to commit suicide in the future. Before that happens, however, she intends to write the most profound thoughts. Beware of the fact that some of her ramblings will annoy some readers: "In my opinion, the cat is a modern totem. Say what you want, do what you will with all those fine speeches on evolution, civilization and a ton of other '-tion' words, mankind has not progressed very far from its origins: people still believe they're not here by chance, and that there are gods, kindly for the most part, who are watching over their fate."
These two delightful characters live in the same building in
They are clearly introverted people. Renée (Madame Michel) will meet a Japanese
gentleman, a new tenant, who happens to have two cats, Kitty and Levin, named
after the characters of Leo Tolstoy’s novel, Anna Karenina. Renée, on the other
hand, named her cat Leo because she loves reading Leo Tolstoy. Kakuro makes
This is a book that finds beauty in sadness, pleasure in solitude; you will find yourself chuckling at simple scenes that happen in everyday life. It is not the kind of book for readers who seek action. It is, however, the story for those who revel in character development and a gentle load of reflections and irony. It encourages the readers to seek below the surface, to discover what shines beyond appearances for those who care to look further, to avoid following the collective mindset and the common prejudices. It suggests that most people are blind to the secret gifts of others.
This is not to say that the main characters are perfect. Some reviewers out there complained that both Renée and Paloma are arrogant. I disagree. Even if they did have an arrogant side, it would not taint the novel or the theme. (Why are these reviewers expecting perfect characters?) In my opinion, their main weakness is that, in some cases, Renée and Paloma also fall prey to the claws of social prejudice. Why do I say this? Because they sometimes label people and forget to see what is beyond their appearances. I could give you examples of this, but I won’t. Read it and reach your own conclusions.
“What does Art do for us? It gives shape to our emotions, makes them visible and, in so doing, places a seal of eternity upon them, a seal representing all those works that, by means of a particular form, have incarnated the universal nature of human emotions.”