Capricious little girls have the capacity to be annoying or incredibly endearing. Crotchety concierges can be as gnarled as they appear or unpredictably erudite. Muriel Bradbury’s novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog, translated from the French, seeks to examine those who are usually overlooked, peeling back exterior presentations to reveal the subtlety or the prickles that lie beneath.
Renée presides over number 7, rue de Grenelle in Paris. She is a self-described inelegant lady, plump, ugly and utterly uninteresting. This is an image she cultivates as the concierge of a building filled with wealthy men and women, broods of self-important children, and pampered pets. Behind her façade of stoic tedium Renée reads Tolstoy with a vengeance, peruses philosophy, and fosters a deep love for art and classical music. The reader is privy to her scorn for the inhabitants of her building and to her admiration of the academic realms she is not supposed to have access to or interest in. Through Renée’s ponderings and observations the crass and disappointing behavior of modern, wealthy Parisians is revealed and soundly judged.
On the other side of the financial divide is Paloma. She is the 12-year-old daughter of the Josses who live in one of the upper apartments of rue de Grenelle. Like Renée, she is ferociously bright. She also has no tolerance for the frivolity of her mother and elder sister and the tedious politics of her father. Paloma has become so disgusted with the lives around her that she has decided to kill herself on her thirteenth birthday. Renée’s musings are interspersed with Paloma’s Profound Thoughts and her entries in her Journal of the Movement of the World. She marks down moments that resonate with her, wondering if something will appear in her last few months that might make life worthwhile.
Paloma and Renée’s withdrawn scrutiny of the world is interrupted by the arrival of a new tenant. He is Japanese and his coming captures the entire building's attention. Much to Renée’s chagrin, her behavior and the offhand quoting of a Tolstoy line, catches Kakuro Ozu’s attention. He senses that something more lies behind the stern exterior of his concierge and works to break down the barriers Renée has constructed to protect herself.
Both Renée and Paloma’s musings verge on tiresome. Intriguing insights glimmer among the precocious ruminations of Paloma, and Renée’s somewhat overdone erudition. But both parties’ decision to conceal their intelligence struck me as odd and disappointing. Renée’s disguise might be explicated by an inability to break out of the class her working class birth dictated, but that notion seems antiquated and Renée’s will too strong to succumb to such prescriptions. Paloma’s suppression of her mental capacity felt childish and somewhat ridiculous. It suggests an adolescent desire to dupe the world, indulgent and immature. Her despair was believable but her behavior made me pity her less.
After the appearance of Kakuro, the novel too closely follows the path of a Cinderella story. He is the exotic prince, come to deliver Paloma and Renée from the farces they have created for themselves. Kakuro plays his role down to the delivery of a new wardrobe for the drab Madame Renée. The transformations occur too quickly and lack the disciplined unraveling that would make them resonate truthfully.
Bradbury does salvage the novel with something of a surprise ending. The upward trajectory of the story comes to a screeching halt and Paloma has a final revelation that strikes a significant chord. But by the conclusion of the book the reader has tired of both ladies’ musings and has little invested in their fates.