I wanted to like The Elegance of the Hedgehog. For one thing, it has been brought to us by the estimable Europa Editions, publishers of the totally wonderful Jane Gardam. Clearly these are people of discernment.
Then, of course, I am a francophile, so the premise — cranky ugly autodidact concierge warms up to brilliant suicidal twelve-year-old girl in a grand Paris apartment building — was immensely appealing. And in fact I did love the stuff about life in the building; the to-ing and fro-ing of the Parisian Great and Good. There’s a marvelous scene where Paloma gets dragged by her mother to a sale in a lingerie store on the rue du Faubourg St. Honoré, and witnesses a battle to the death over a pair of lacy underpants, carried out under the guise of the utmost courtesy.
I was a good sport about the intermittent lessons on philosophy or the Japanese concept of wabi that come from Renée, the concierge. (The structure has her observations alternating with those of Paloma, the twelve-year-old.) Read ’em all, took them in. It even occurred to me that I was not to take this whole story literally which is a difficult concept for me. Perhaps a novel in which a pair of sisters are named “Paloma” and “Colombe” is signalling some allegorical intent. OK. Authors have different intentions. I can wrap my head around that.
But here’s what you don’t do — you don’t graft together all this highfalutin philosophy and this clever wise-cracking narration with a story too sappy for Frances Hodgson Burnett. You just don’t. Least of all do you pull the stunt that Muriel Barbery does at the end. Suffice it to say that the final words of the book are: “The beauty in this world.” Nope. No preaching.
This book was a huge best seller in France and has been on the New York Times best-seller list for almost three months, so lots of people are buying and enjoying it. I guess I’m just crankier than I thought.