Renée Michel is the dumpy, nondescript, 54-year-old concierge of a small and exclusive Paris apartment building. Its handful of tenants include a celebrated restaurant critic, high government officials and members of the old nobility. Every day these residents pass by the loge of Madame Michel and, unless they want something from her, scarcely notice that she is alive. As it happens, Renée Michel prefers it that way. There is far more to her than meets the eye.
Paloma Josse also lives in the building. Acutely intelligent, introspective and philosophical, this 12-year-old views the world as absurd and records her observations about it in her journal. She despises her coddled existence, her older sister Colombe (who is studying at the École normale supérieure), and her well-to-do parents, especially her plant-obsessed mother. After careful consideration of what life is like, Paloma has secretly decided to kill herself on her 13th birthday.
These two characters provide the double narrative of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, and you will — this is going to sound corny — fall in love with both. In Europe, where Muriel Barbery's book became a huge bestseller in 2007, it has inspired the kind of affection and enthusiasm American readers bestow on the works of Alexander McCall Smith. Still, this is a very French novel: tender and satirical in its overall tone, yet most absorbing because of its reflections on the nature of beauty and art, the meaning of life and death. Out of context, Madame Michel's pensees may occasionally sound pretentious, just as Paloma might sometimes pass for a Gallic (and female) version of Holden Caulfield. But, for the most part, Barbery makes us believe in these two unbelievable characters.