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Literature / The Elegance of the Hedgehog

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The Elegance of the Hedgehog is Muriel Barbery's critically acclaimed literary debut, first published in 2006.

The novel is set in an elegant hotel particulier in the center of Paris. Renee, the building's concierge, is short, ugly, and plump. She has bunions on her feet. She is cantankerous and addicted to soap operas. Her only genuine attachment is to her cat, Leo. In short, she is everything society expects a concierge at a posh Parisian building to be. But Renee has a secret: she is a ferocious autodidact who furtively devours art, philosophy, music, and Japanese culture. With biting humour she scrutinizes the lives of the tenants - her inferiors in every way except that of material wealth.

Then there is Paloma, a super-smart twelve-year old. Talented and precocious, she hides her extraordinary intelligence behind a mask of mediocrity.

Their lives come together when a new tenant arrives, a wealthy Japanese man named Ozu. He sees through Renee's disguise with ease and is the first adult to treat Paloma as a person.

Tropes in The Elegance of the Hedgehog include:

  • Bourgeois Bohemian: Paloma's parents, but is mostly a facade.
  • Friend to All Living Things: Olympe, one of the tenants who is studying to become a veterinerian.
  • Girl Friday: Paul is a male version for Ozu.
  • Gossipy Hens: The older lady tenants of the establishment.
  • Grammar Nazi: Both Renee and Paloma. Paloma in particular is in a position to make her displeasure known.
  • Hypocrite: Pretty much everyone other than Ozu. Special mention goes to Madame Josse who pretends to be a socialist but is as snobbish as anyone else the lives in the building.
  • Japanese Politeness: Ozu is unfailingly polite, even to people who do not deserve it.
  • Kindhearted Cat Lover: Both Renee and Ozu. Renee to her cat Leo, named after Tolstoy and Ozu to his to cats Kitty and Levin.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: A main theme in the book. Two of the three main characters practice this.
  • Man of Wealth and Taste: Ozu and Arthens.
  • Proper Lady: Manuela the Maid and Olympe the Veterinarian.
  • Rich Bitch: Paloma's older sister Colombe is absolutely nasty to anyone she can get away with treating badly.
  • Rich in Dollars, Poor in Sense: The majority of the tenants.
  • Theme Naming: The Josse's daughters are called Colombe and Paloma, names that both mean 'dove'.
  • Wicked Cultured: Pierre Arthens and Colombe Josse.