October 8, 2011

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

In the course of a reader’s life, there are so few books one can afford to read more than once. The Elegance of the Hedgehog earns its way into a rare class of stories that makes you want to turn the book over and start again as soon as you’re finished. What makes it so? Well, for anyone who’s ever felt the sting of being underestimated, ignored, or misunderstood, there’s a quiet victory just waiting inside the head of the book’s main protagonist, 54-year-old Renee Michel.

Madame Michel’s role as a concierge allows her a solitary intellectual life that unfolds from beginning to end in a heady journey through film, philosophy, and art. But her ability to appraise the thoughts of the haughty patrons she serves is a bitter cup. What could be more brutal than to know the exact measure of your negligible worth as estimated by others? It would be great to imagine that all readers might see themselves as the arrogant perpetrators in Muriel Burbery’s novel. But, as we all know, it’s difficult to see the ways in which we judge.

Is it worse to live behind a self-constructed fa├žade or to build one for someone else? Madame Michel’s remarkable substance permits her to retain her dignity and her humanity, despite her lowly assignment and the shackles of a distorted past. It also wins her the royal gift of friendship with people who recognize her for what she is. Isn’t this what we all hope for? This novel is a feast for the mind and the spirit, best consumed with a cup of tea. Read it and you’ll see why.

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