Poking past The Hedgehog hype

Sometimes I am a little late to the conversation. I know everyone was talking about The Elegance of the Hedgehog back when it hit the English-speaking shelves in 2008. Six years later, I decided to dive in. (Speaking of being late to the game, Starbucks in Dubai just got seasonal pumpkin spice lattes for the first time…)

The story alternates between the confessional-style musings and conversational-style writings of a rich, super-intelligent Parisian tweenage apartment resident and an astute, menopausal concierge of the said apartment. On the surface level I enjoyed this book immensely—two people on opposite ends of the societal spectrum confront some of their assumptions about the other side and come out better because of it.

I read others’ reviews of it after I finished, and I must say that I have to hand it to the critics. These characters spend the whole book moaning about how other people just assume things about them based on appearances but they don’t really get to know them. But the same two people who are doing the complaining don’t put in the effort to push past the pokey defenses of their cold neighbors, either. I’ve seen this conversation happen before:

“I feel so left out because no one invites me to do anything.”
“Do you invite anyone to do anything either?”
“No, but I’m new here / not good at it / boring so I shouldn’t be the one to do it.”

Except in the book it sounded more like:

“No one wants to get to know who I really am.”
“Did you try to get to know who they really are?”
“No, but I’ve spent enough time with them to know that they don’t care about me / aren’t worth my time / aren’t intelligent enough / won’t provide me with effortless, meaningful conversation.”

Once I realized that, it soiled my impression of the book. But I will hold on to the parts that I liked and made the book worth the read. A truly beautiful aspect of the story was the timid friendship between Kakuro Ozu and the main character Renée Michel. Both middle-aged, both introverted and kind-hearted, both epicurean. Their friendship is one that was in its beginning stages of development, yet already so familiar and trusting. I wanted to become a part of that intimacy. It is a modified Cinderella and Prince Charming story, but with realistic people who are in the afternoon of their lives rather than their mornings, who come with some baggage and history, who are looking more for someone they can talk to than someone they can keep up appearances with.

And, call me out for being a girl who likes to read about romantic relationships (then go right on dissing Jane Austen while you’re at it), but I wish the book was more about that. I don’t wish the story had cut straight to the part where Prince Charming/Kakuro Ozu is introduced. I wanted the story to be longer, and I wanted them to enjoy each others’ lives more. And I wanted that precocious, pretentious 12-year-old to take her know-it-all self elsewhere.

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