I was so determined to love this book but now that I think about it I really can’t remember why. What first convinced me that this might be something I’d enjoy? Because it’s French? Because it’s got hedgehogs* in the title? Because it has a pretty cover? I’m really not sure. Sadly, I was pretty certain that it wasn’t going to be my cup of tea within a few pages of starting but I persevered and although I soon found that I wasn’t having as bad a time as expected, nevertheless, I was quite glad to finish and move on to something more to my usual tastes.
I should stress that it’s not the fault of the book that I misjudged it, nor is it a bad book (if there is such a thing). In fact, there were plenty of things for me to enjoy here. After a while I grew to quite like the book’s main protagonist, Madame Renee, the downtrodden, middle aged concierge with a secret she keeps hidden from the snooty inhabitants of her apartment building: she is, in fact, a genius and an avid reader of Tolstoy and Kant in her spare time. Of course, it doesn’t stay secret for long when a charming Japanese businessman moves in and joins forces with Paloma, the angsty pre-teen on the third floor (another self-proclaimed genius who hides her talents) to break down Madame’s barriers. Her gradual thawing and blossoming friendships are kind of touching to watch unfold.
In some ways I guess it’s a celebration of the quiet, seemingly unremarkable people – the hedgehogs of this world – who spend their lives ignored and living on the side-lines. And that would be all well and good if there wasn’t a certain snootiness to Madame Renee and the young Paloma too. You see, in order to prove that they are worthy, noble intellectuals Barbary shoehorns into this novel some lengthy musings on philosophy, history, high and low culture. Sometimes these asides are interesting and sometimes they’re not but they’re often sparked by a need to prove how shallow, tedious and stupid some of the other characters are. It’s hard to feel sympathetic to those poor, oppressed hedgehogs when they’re nurturing such indignant superiority in their hearts.
Things get a little better when Ozu arrives and encourages them both to chill a bit but the book remains a little pretentious all the way through to the end. And I’m not entirely comfortable with the stereotypical, fetishized portrayal of the Japanese Mr Ozu. Surely we’re above this kind of nonsense by now?
Plus, why is it even necessary for Renee to hide the fact that she’s clever simply because she works as a concierge? It makes no sense.
Anyhow, I didn’t hate this novel but I did think it was a little trite and a little pompous at times.
* There are precisely 0 hedgehogs in this book.