Books: By the Hand

by anneMoore on May 29, 2009

Instead of grabbing you by the throat, some books take you gently by the hand. Soothing, comfortable — ok, slow. But you’ll tote that book around like a third child and finish it, and feel sorry when you have.

41uxb30v50l_ss500_1 “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” is one of those books. A 2007 prize-winner in France, it took me a few chapters to figure out the reason for its wide appeal. (By Muriel Barbery, translated from the French by Alison Anderson, Europa Books, $15.) A brief, unsigned review in The New Yorker led me to it.

Set in a luxury apartment building in the posh 7th arrondissement of Paris, the story is told in alternating chapters by Paloma, a precocious 12-year-old, and by the concierge, Renee, a frumpy lump of a woman who hides her intellect.

Why do we care about these two? Paloma is figuring out how to endure the inequities of this world; Renee needs a way in.

Playing the part of a typical concierge, Renee keeps a t.v. blaring by the door, and settles into a back room listening to Mahler, reading Tolstoy, spoiling her fat cat Leo.

It is Paloma who describes Renee as having the elegance of a hedgehog: “covered in quills…fiercely solitary.”

Paloma is a marvelous character. She pretends to be a typical child, but she’s not: she feels and thinks too deeply about all things, and so can’t see the point of living beyond 13. “The world is no place for princesses,” she declares. Among her complaints: her family’s disdain for the plight of African immigrants in Paris. Her suicide, she reasons, “will refresh their pea-brain memories.”

The arrival of a cultured Japanese businessman to the building changes them both. Renee sheds her self-made shell. (I nearly stood and cheered when she leaves the building to have her hair styled — and the source of her borrowed frocks is hilarious.)

For Paloma, M. Ozu is an adult she can admire. “I have met someone who seeks out others and who sees beyond.”

The ending is abrupt, and bittersweet. When I look at this book on my shelf, I want to crawl back into it.

One response to “Books: By the Hand”

  1. Flora says:

    Now I want to add this book to the pile on my bedside table so I can crawl into it any night…….