The Elegance of the Hedgehog

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imgresI first read The Elegance of the Hedgehog in 2009, not long after it was translated from French. While reading it this time, I had two separate French people stopped me on the subway to tell me what a wonderful book it was. When I went back to see what I wrote about it on my blog after the first time I read it, I saw I didn’t. It made my Top Ten Books of the Year but apparently a lot of the books I love the most I haven’t written about–as though they were too immense to try to put into words. But now, seven years later, I will try.

The story alternates between two narrators who live in the same Parisian building. Paloma is a 12 year old girl who is frustrated with the rich, privileged people she comes from and is surrounded by. Renee is an autodidact and the long time concierge in Paloma’s building. She has created a secret life for herself, hiding her passion and ability for learning and philosophy, and love of civility behind what she believes to be her peasant-like station in life. As the story progresses, each character learns in her own way, as their paths cross with each other and a new tenant in the building, to live more freely as themselves, and to reassess how they perceive others.

Paloma’s story begins when she states she is going to commit suicide at the age of 13 because she can’t bear the world any longer. Her narratives are excerpts from her journal, where she records what she calls “movements of the world”–“the beauty that is there in the world, things that, being part of the movement of life, elevate us” (page 38). Her hope is that she will find a reason for being, and reading the different things she noticed reminded me to look for them, too.

I love Paloma’s journey, especially as a middle school teacher who appreciates/understands the simultaneous energy and self-centered nature young adolescents possess. Renee, though, is like a dear friend. She encompasses, in most ways, the kind of quiet, reflective life filled with learning that I want to have for myself. In her story I found so much of the mindful nature I work at on and off. She speaks of her daily tea with her best (and only) friend:

“I know tea is no minor beverage. When tea becomes ritual, it takes its place at the heart of our ability to see greatness in small things. Where is beauty to be found? In great things that, like everything else, are doomed to die, or in small things that aspire to nothing, yet know how to set a jewel of infinity in a single moment?” (page 91).  Here she is talking about tea, and she is also talking, unknowingly, about herself. Renee’s greatest flaw is that she wants to hide her best self from everyone, and in doing so misses out on the joy of kindred souls.

My favorite moment of the book, though, is when after gathering courage and dressing up for a night out with a new tenant, none of the old tenants recognize her. The new tenant replies “It is because they have never seen you. I would recognize you anywhere” (page 303).

The story of Renee finally sharing who she really was and the beauty of this new tenant to see it has been filling my thoughts the past few weeks–to what degree do we see people? Or do we just pass judgement? Or make assumptions? What friendships are we missing because we are holding back? I want to have eyes like this new tenant. I want to teach my students to have these eyes. To see without prejudice. To find small moments of beauty when all else seems dull.

{As a side note, I saw the French film version 3 or 4 years ago, and loved it as well. Of course, only after having read the book.}

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