We often hide our true selves from people around us. Perhaps our authenticity is actually what the world needs.
To the upper class people who live in her elegant Parisian apartment building, Renée Michel is a simple concierge. They would never guess the secret that she guards every waking minute. It is a terrible weight on her conscience and a deep embarrassment. Due to a traumatic event that occurred in her family when she was a child, she lives in mortal fear that someone will see through the chinks in her armor, that someone will see beyond the hedgehog spines that protect her soft and vulnerable core. Her secret? Renée loves to read and think about subjects way above her station. She has a taste for cultured things: art, music, film and philosophy. She loves and appreciates beauty and is particularly fond of Japanese culture. One of the few things she does allow herself is a garden with beautiful camellias, which can be passed off as part of her job. There are clues. It just takes the right people to follow them.
Paloma Joss is the world weary daughter of an upper class yet provincial family. At twelve, she sees her family’s shortcomings and fears being sealed in the fish-bowl of modern adult life. She has no one to confide in and feels increasingly alien to the people around her. Seeing nothing but futility, she has decided to document the last six months of her existence and commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday. Best laid plans do so often go awry.
These two women, who meet and become friends very late in the novel, are the narrators of Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, their individual voices being reinforced by a change in font. This is a story that will ring true to anyone who has felt left out of society, anyone who finds that the things they love most are not valued very much by most people. As a tribe, we are most likely to open up to others that don’t fit in: lonely children, alcoholics, addicts and people who are not “respectable”. Those people are less likely to make us uncomfortable than upper class folks who seem uninterested in life, those who have the privilege of being able to afford anything, but don’t seem to have any interests. When we do find kindred souls, we tend to bond deeply. The Elegance of the Hedgehog is about those meetings between souls and how they change the world, even in the midst of death and decay.
There is a moment near the end of the novel, when the son of a former tenant comes to see Renée, who he knows as Madame Michel. This young man had a serious drug addiction when he lived in the building and has lived to tell the tale.
“In the flower bed, over there” –he points toward the far side of the courtyard– “there are some pretty little red and white flowers, you planted them there, didn’t you? And one day I asked you what they were but I wasn’t able to remember the name. And yet I used to think about those flowers all the time, I don’t know why. They’re nice to look at, and when I was so bad off I would think about those flowers and it did me good. So I was in the neighborhood just now and I thought, I am going to ask Madame Michel, maybe she can tell me.”
Slightly embarrassed, he waits for my reaction.
“It must seem weird, no? I hope I’m not scaring you, with this flower business.”
“No, not at all. If only I’d known the good they were doing you…I’d have planted them all over the place!”
He laughs like a delighted child.
“Ah, Madame Michel, you know, it practically saved my life. That in itself is a miracle! So can you tell me what they are called?”
Yes, my angel, I can. Along the pathways of hell, breathless, one’s heart in one’s mouth, a faint glow: they are camellias.
“Yes,” I say. “They are camellias.”
He stares at me, wide-eyed. A tear slips across his waiflike cheek.
“Camellias…” he says, lost in a memory that is his alone. “Camellias, yes.” He repeats the word, looking at me again. “That’s it. Camellias.”