Ex-quis-ite adj. Extremely beautiful and, typically, delicate.
El-e-gant adj. 1. Pleasingly graceful and stylish in appearance or manner. 2. Pleasingly ingenious and simple.
Au-to-di-dact n. A self-taught person.
‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’, translated from the French, is simply exquisite. The writing is so, so beautiful. It is human and real, so full of good humour and wit, capturing simultaneously both the simple and the profound. What a pleasure to read. Barbery is a philosopher with insight into so much. Breathtaking phrases, like this of drinking a cup of tea, are typical in the book.
“The tea ritual: such a precise repetition of the same gestures and the same tastes; accession to simple, authentic and refined sensations, a license given to all, at little cost, to become aristocrats of taste, because tea is the beverage of the wealthy and of the poor; the tea ritual, therefore, has the extraordinary virtue of introducing into the absurdity of our lives an aperture of serene harmony. Yes, the world may aspire to vacuousness, lost souls mourn beauty, insignificance surrounds us. Then let us drink a cup of tea. Silence descends, one hears the wind outside, autumn leaves rustle and take flight, the cat sleeps in a warm pool of light. And, with each swallow, time is sublimed.”
The story line from the flyleaf is also so well written, I won’t try to improve on it.
“We are in an elegant hôtel particulier in the centre of Paris. Renée, the building’s concierge, is short, ugly, and plump. She has bunions on her feet. She is cantankerous and addicted to television soaps. Her only genuine attachment is to her cat, Leo. In short, she is everything society expects from a concierge at a bourgeois building in a posh Parisian neighbourhood. But Renée has a secret: she is a ferocious autodidact who furtively devours art, philosophy, music, and Japanese culture. With biting humour she scrutinizes the lives of the building’s tenants – her inferiors in every way except that of material wealth.
Then there’s Paloma, a super-smart twelve-year-old and the youngest daughter of the Josses, who live on the fifth floor. Talented, precocious and startlingly lucid, she has come to terms with life’s seeming futility and has decided to end her own on the day of her thirteenth birthday. Until then she will continue hiding her extraordinary intelligence behind a mask of mediocrity, acting the part of an average pre-teen high on pop subculture, a good but not an outstanding student, an obedient if obstinate daughter.
Paloma and Renée hide both their true talents and their finest qualities from a world they suspect cannot or will not appreciate them. They discover their kindred souls when a new tenant arrives, a wealthy Japanese man named Ozu. He befriends Paloma and is able to see through Renée’s timeworn disguise to the mysterious event that has haunted her since childhood. This is a moving, witty, and redemptive novel that exalts the quiet victories of the inconspicuous among us.”