Hedgehogs aren’t native to America, but you don’t have to be French to sniff out at least some of the contradictions in the title of Muriel Barbery’s European bestseller. Her novel both depicts and hopes to appeal to the connoisseur of humanity who can appreciate exquisite qualities unacknowledged by others. One of her two Parisian diarist heroines is a concierge, the other a suicidal adolescent. They sound conventional, but that’s precisely the point: they both work very hard to achieve stereotypicality. As the frumpy concierge Renée says, “I correspond so very well to what social prejudice has collectively construed to be a typical French concierge that I am one of the multiple cogs that make the great universal illusion turn, the illusion according to which life has a meaning that can be easily deciphered.” From her position as a teenager, Paloma casts a jaundiced eye: “In our world…you must constantly rebuild your identity as an adult,…it is wobbly and ephemeral, so fragile, cloaking despair and, when you’re alone in front of the mirror, it tells you the lies you need to believe.”
Renée appears to be a prickly, homely hedgehog, but that appearance is a deliberately crafted fa?ade masking her inner elegance of taste and sensibility. Her life’s work has been to appear the perfect cat-owning, cabbage-stewing, television-blaring concierge so that she can really spend her time reading philosophy, cooking delicious morsels, critiquing grammatical solecisms, and watching the old Japanese movies of Yasujiro Ozu. Rather charmingly, she also likes Blade Runner. Every now and then in her interchanges with the tenants her mask slips — she refers, say, to a relatively obscure work by Marx and Engels — but, as she caustically notes, the privileged tenants’ conditioning conspires to conceal her: “I find this a fascinating phenomenon: the ability we have to manipulate ourselves so that the foundation of our beliefs is never shaken.” Her waspishness can take on the overtones of Diogenes, revealing dishonesty and inauthenticity in unexpected corners:
Colombe Josse is…a sort of tall blond leek who dresses like a penniless Bohemian. If there is one thing I despise, it’s the perverse affectation of rich people who go around dressing as if they were poor…. Not only is it ugly, it is also insulting: nothing is more despicable than a rich man’s scorn for a poor man’s longing.
As the novel opens, Paloma, because of her disgust with the world around her, has decided to kill herself on her 13th birthday. Mme. Renée isn’t exactly happy in her life, but she has become comfortable with her private arrangements.
In their diaries, both Renée and Paloma specialize in recognizing naked emperors — about philosophy: “Phenomenology is a fraud”; about a food critic: ” To write entire pages of dazzling prose about a tomato…without ever seeing or holding the tomato is a troubling display of virtuosity.” As the novel pingpongs back and forth between their diaries, there’s a reader’s pleasure in seeing — being privileged to see — the quirky tastes and judgments Renée and Paloma share. These are among the most fascinating moments of the book, allowing us to play the discerning detective, letting us exercise our qualities of connoisseurship. The scene — sidelong and subtle — in which the two finally find each other is, to my taste, the most moving in the book.
We are not the only ones to appreciate these tangy yet supersensitive souls. Things begin to change when one tenant dies and a new tenant moves in: a single Japanese man, a distant relative of the director Ozu. He turns out to be another exquisitely perceptive connoisseur. Yes, our Cinderellas will get to go to the ball. Whatever rags of cynicism and fear Renée and Paloma share will fall away; they become clothed in shiny hopefulness. “Don’t worry, Renée,” concludes Paloma, “from now on, for you, I’ll be searching for those moments of always within never.”
Barbery has written an inspiring and heartwarming tale — unless, that is, you happen to practice the virtues of caustic clearsightedness that Mme. Renée and Paloma preach. Then you might notice that their targets are too easy. After all, no one’s surprised to find skinny, shallow, and sexually squeamish matrons in the 7th Arrondissement. I might have been more impressed with Paloma and Renée’s discernment if they’d found a spark of humanity on the upper floors of 7, rue de Grenelle. Instead, Barbery has stacked the deck. All the characters who are meant to be authentic — in an existential sense, of course — are either poor or oddities among the haute bourgeoisie. It is obviously impossible to be self-aware if you have money — unless you happen to be Japanese. You might also notice the book is, under the prickles of its cultural sophistication, deeply sentimental. Plotlines and backstories, including an absurdity straight from a Victorian melodrama, pop up just in time to tug a heartstring and prompt a tear.
I have to admit it’s flattering to be thought the sort of reader who has an eye for social satire, a yen for art, culture, and philosophical ideas, and a warm heart, to boot. For the first two-thirds of this novel, I was rooting for Mme. Renée, our elegant hedgehog. In fact, when I first began reading this book, I thought Barbery might be alluding to the famous book on Tolstoy by the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who was himself quoting the Greek poet Archilochus (Barbery’s name-dropping thing is easy once you try): “The fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” So I’d like to persuade myself that one of Barbery’s satirical targets was precisely the kind of sentimentality that takes over the last third of her book and that there’s one big profound message here. Alas, I cannot make my thinking as wishful as that. Now — based on the end of the novel, which I cannot possibly under any circumstances reveal — I’m reminded that a leading cause of hedgehog deaths in Europe is being squished in the middle of the road.