I wrote this mildly official book review for my last high school assignment. I meant to post it a few weeks ago, but I was too busy finishing up the terribleness that is high school. It’s my last day today.
Throughout Muriel Barbery’s novel, one of the two protagonists is searching for reasons to live, which is a rather odd thing for the protagonist, Paloma to be doing, as she is the young age of 12. Most of us don’t start searching for these reasons until later in life, until the ugliness of the real world starts to seep into the idealized worlds that our parents have built for us. Even though Paloma seems too young to be having these thoughts, she is. Early in the novel, she declares that on her 13th birthday that she will set her French apartment on fire, taking herself down with it. Because this declaration occurs in the opening pages, the reader is thrown into her world immediately. A key characteristic of The Elegance of the Hedgehog is the diary-esque style that it is written in. Paloma’s chapters of the novel are written as her “Profound Thoughts,” her reflections on life and her search for beauty. Barbery makes it seem like you are reading Paloma’s diary, as if you came across it one afternoon while cleaning her room. Since Paloma is such an unusual 12-year-old, writing the novel in this style makes it appear more realistic and believable.
Barbery introduces the reader to the other protagonist, the apartment’s concierge Renee, in a much more direct way. Renee’s sections of the novel sharply contrast Paloma’s inner thoughts. These sections tend to have more action, even though that action is mostly elevator rides and afternoon teas. Barbery trades the diary style for a more traditional narrative in these sections, and the designer of the book even changes fonts as well. While this is a minor detail, it made the book for me, as a lover of both typography and design.
The font is not the only minor detail that Barbery gifts to the reader. The hours that the well-read, educated reader spent with her nose in a book while she could have gone out will friends will be rewarded. Barbery sprinkles allusions throughout her novel, the most obvious being the allusion to Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Barbery is not afraid to show off her philosophy degree; she frequently name-drops philosophers and great thinkers. Not only does this show Barbery’s intelligence, it highlights that of her protagonists as well, both of who are trying so very hard to keep their intelligence unknown to those around them. Paloma is careful to not be too smart in class, but is still clearly the child that can sit at the adult’s table at Christmas and keep up with the conversation. Renee is also carful to not be smart, as she is just a lowly concierge and should not be concerning her time with those things the upper class read.
As the book progresses, both of the women’s intelligence is shown when a mysterious Japanese man moves into the building. Even though this new character is key to the novel, Barbery is careful to not introduce him too soon, keeping the spotlight on the two female protagonists, which can be rare in literature.
By using her own intelligence, Barbery is able to show how hiding is futile, while also letting her characters grace the reader with witty comments and musings on the world.