The Elegance Of The Hedgehog Summary

Muriel Barbery

The Elegance Of The Hedgehog

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The Elegance Of The Hedgehog Summary

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Walking a careful line between popular and literary fiction, The Elegance of the Hedgehog explores themes of isolation, education, class, and identity, and examines the ways people hide their true natures. Primarily set in an upmarket apartment building in Paris, the story is told through the first-person narratives of its two principal characters: the building’s concierge and the daughter of a rich couple who live in one of the apartments.

The novel opens with Renée, the concierge, discussing a chance encounter with the son of one of her bosses. The young man, described disparagingly by Renée as little more than an ignorant upper-class phony, remarks that reading the works of Karl Marx changed his life. He assumes that she will not know what he is talking about,but she is extremely well-read and recommends that he read Marx’s The German Ideology.

She immediately regrets this comment because it might give away her true intelligence but, fortunately, the young man believes so strongly that lower-class workers like concierges are ignorant that he cannot believe that she actually made the suggestion. Renée quickly offers a bland pleasantry that fits his view of her and he leaves her alone.

This opening incident is a key example of how Renée hides her true nature and intelligence. As her narrative continues, the reader learns that she is an extremely knowledgeable autodidact, or self-taught scholar, who hides her knowledge from her clients by barely speaking to them and appearing to spend the entire day watching television.

The first diary entry by Paloma Josse, the daughter of a rich couple who live in Renée’s building, reveals that she is also intelligent and also considers herself something of an outcast. Titled “Profound Thought No. 1,” the entry describes Paloma’s belief that her wealth will shelter her and limit her capacity to enjoy a full life. Accordingly, the twelve-year-old intends to kill herself on her thirteenth birthday. Although she is obsessed with Japan, she decides against employing a traditional Japanese approach to suicide because it is too painful and instead plans to set fire to her parents’ decadent apartment and take a lethal dose of sleeping tablets.

After these revealing opening sections, the two alternating narratives slowly reveal further details about the characters’ histories and their views on life, including Paloma’s observations on the emptiness and shallowness of the lifestyle embraced by her family and Renée’s analysis of key philosophical texts and theories. Interspersed with these reflections are descriptions of relatively minor incidents from the lives of the narrators and other residents of the apartment building.

The steady rhythms of the narrators’ lives are interrupted when one of the residents dies and a wealthy Japanese business man named Kakuro Ozu purchases the apartment. Renée is intrigued by Kakuro as, like Paloma she has a great love of Japanese culture, and, in particular, has recently become fascinated by both an author and a filmmaker who share the man’s surname.

Kakuro also becomes interested in Renée after she unthinkingly begins to quote a line from her favorite novel, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, which Kakuro recognizes and completes for her. This interest develops further after he meets and befriends Paloma as they both believe that Renée is more intelligent than she lets on.

Renée is surprised to receive a package from Kakuro containing a rare and expensive edition of Anna Karenina and even more surprised when he invites her to dinner in his apartment. She accepts and they spend an enjoyable evening together discovering that they share similar tastes in art and literature, and conversing openly about Renée’s habit of disguising her intelligence.

At the end of the night, Renée and Kakuro agree to meet up again and Renée is so excited that she struggles to sleep that night. However, when the two meet again to watch a film in Kakuro’s apartment, Renée sees a picture of Kakuro’s long-deceased wife and is extremely intimidated by her, believing that she cannot measure up to the woman’s beauty or intelligence.

In between these dates, the two narrators finally meet when Paloma comes to Renée’s apartment to pick up a parcel and, later, asks if she can visit the apartment to escape her family. Renée agrees and Paloma begins to treat the place as a refuge from her normal life. She is there one day when Kakuro comes to visit Renée to invite her to a restaurant for his birthday and Renée declines.

After Kakuro has left, Renée offers Paloma some explanation into her decision, explaining that her sister had been in a relationship with a rich man who had abandoned her, leaving her heartbroken and pregnant. Her sister had died giving birth to the child and the child had died shortly afterwards. Paloma says that the story gives her hope and, once the girl has left, Renée calls Kakuro’s apartment and accepts the invitation.

Unbeknownst to Renée, Paloma tells Kakuro the story of Renée’s sister so that he can better understand her earlier reluctance. When Kakuro and Renée have their date, he supportively tells her that she is not her sister and he has no intention of using her and leaving her, causing Renée to cry with joy.

The next day, after another excited, sleepless night, Renée sees a homeless man staggering in the street and wishes to help him. However, as she crosses the road to reach him, she is knocked down by a truck and fatally injured. In her last moments, she thinks of the people she loves, including Kakuro who had been a source of hope and excitement and Paloma who had become like a daughter to her.

After Renée dies, Paloma and Kakuro go to her apartment to choose the clothes that she will be buried in and the novel ends with Paloma grieving for Renée and promising her that she will not kill herself on her thirteenth birthday but will instead live a productive, full, and rewarding life.