L'Élégance du hérisson (The Elegance of the Hedgehog) by Muriel Babery ---my view
This a closed spaced —locked?— novel almost to the end, as everything happens indoors—physically and metaphorically speaking. When the door of the building is pushed at last and Paris shows its face, then it’s all over. Tragedy strikes. At least tragedy in its most manifest, albeit ordinary, form. For this is not a happy novel, although the possibility of redemption, or at least hope, appears. Destinies are retraced. What one pre-adolescent thought she understood and controlled ends up being not so controllable or understandable after all. Suicide might not be the solution. Life is not such a simple formula. What the intellect grasps, the emotions swallow and spurt out, but not very neatly. What ideas collect and put in place, art rearranges and deranges in the process.
Muriel Babery sets her philosophical novel in a Paris building for the rich and spoiled. Two rebels against the system are the voices of this novel—Renée, the concierge, and Paloma, a gifted twelve-year old who thinks life is not worth living. Their rebellion is an inner rebellion, and the building in which all this (non)action takes place can be seen not only as a metaphor for their inner life, but also for the suffocating society that surrounds them. Only books, only literature can open up such a space, reinvent such a space. Only minds like them can now enter this reinvented place. A cat will be allowed as well. And, later, a Japanese man with his new perspective on things.
Babery, in this slow paced, intellectual and poetic work, depicts two refined souls in a brutal world, two strangers with a hermit crab attitude trying desperately to protect themselves from the adventure of life. Until one shell starts to open and the other, as a consequence, has to break, so life, because of death, must be lived. This sounds cryptic. But when you read this intriguing novel, you will understand.
It is not a perfect work; there are some dead moments, although rare. Some chapters could have been removed; others, developed. Some useless characters could have been killed. Some vigor in the thought process could have been added. But Barbery still achieved something quite remarkable with this novel: in an elegant, highly accessible prose, she did manage to intrigue and stimulate both sides of the brain. High marks for that.