Coincidence sometimes puts books in my hands that I would not read otherwise. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery came to me that way. When visiting in NYC, Ellen said she had read and liked this book -- she doesn't proclaim it, but I think she's a covert Francophile. The next day at my favorite thrift shop I found it on the shelf. I would not have purchased a book with an adolescent on the cover because it suggests to me that it's going to be a coming of age story in the insipid way I detest, "They say to write what you know and I'm only 20 and all I know is the pain of growing up." No, not at all, this is told by a very grown up and well educated writer although the two women in it are stuck, like adolescents critical of everything their parents do, in their too aware and painfully sharp disgust with the bourgeoisie who inhabit the elegant apartment building where Renee is the concierge and Paloma a sulky 12 year old rich kid.
Renee works hard to be the stereotypical concierge, all but invisible to the building's denizens, except to Manuela, a Portuguese cleaning woman. Most of the story is told in Renee's mind, portions, in different type face, are notes toward a philosophical view of life by Paloma who has decided on suicide on her 13th birthday to escape the pretentiousness she's afraid will be her fate. I had difficulty getting involved with both characters for the first third of the book but was pulled along by Barbery's writing which seemed very "French" and, indeed, elegant as the two philosophized and said senseless things such as that hedgehogs are elegant. Eventually both are befriended by an wealthy Japanese who moves into the building and their protective judgmental attitudes are striped away.
It was a double Cinderella story with a twist to the happily ever after ending as if nothing of equal importance could be told after the sooty clothes are shed, in that sense I was disappointed. Growing up is difficult whether you're 12 or 54, but living as a true adult is even more difficult. Not enough books attempt to show how it's done.
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