***The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (2006)

No, this is not a book about hedgehogs (well, metaphorically, it is); rather, it’s a book that combines philosophy, history, literature, art, and culture in an attempt to look at life through the lens of social class.  It’s both  hilarious and grave.  Set in modern day Paris, it is narrated by two characters: Madame Michel, an uneducated, poor, apartment building concierge who possesses great knowledge of all things aristocratic–art, music, literature, history.  But she hides it in an attempt to be seen–and remain in–her proper place at the bottom of the social ladder.  The other narrator is 12 year old Paloma Josse, the daughter of wealthy, educated Parisians.  She lives in the elegant apartment building, and she is appalled by most of what she sees: a materialistic sister, a highly educated depressed, superifical mother, a detached father.  About half way through the story, the two narrators meet, and their friendship is Palome’s saving grace and Madame Michel’s chance to connect with a young woman, something she has not done since parting with her own sister more than thirty years earlier.

Line after line, I just wanted to stop and reread, either for the wit, the image, or the commentary on life.  When we first meet Madame Michel, she refers to TV as “inane nonsense fit for the brain of a clam.”  Later Paloma describes French cuisine saying, “when it isn’t heavy, it’s as fussy as can be: you’re dying of hunger and before you are three stylized radishes and two scallops in a seaweed gelee served on pseudo-Zen plates by waiters who look as joyful as undertakers.”

On a more serious note, Paloma reminds us to “tell ourselves that it’s now that matters: to build something, now, at any price, using all our strength.  Always remember there’s a retirement home waiting somewhere, and we have to surpass ourselves every day.” And near the end of the book Madame Michel tells us that “Poverty is a reaper: it harvests everything inside us that might have made us capable of social interaction with others, and leaves us empty, purged of feeling, so that we may endure all the darkness of the present day.”

I haven’t read a book this good in a long time.  The writing is beautiful.  The ideas, profound. And the characters snatch you into their world, making you laugh and cry as their story unfolds.  (fiction)

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