Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Finding the elegance in a hedgehog

I wonder if friendship can transcend class.

I know it seems obvious and the best-selling reads of the year say, “of course, here’s proof” as they document unlikely friendships that cross racial, class and religious barriers.

But I’m not so sure.

I think of the people I consider close friends. They seem diverse- there’s the black-skinned and brown-skinned, Jewish and gentile and atheist, gay and straight, 65 years old, 25 years old.

We’re bound by shared interests and what creates those shared interests? Shared experiences. And what creates shared experiences? Largely, I think, class. Despite the seeming diversity, they’re all upper-middle class, educated people.

They, like me, live comfortably and when there’s money left over, we travel. We like to eat out at non-chain restaurants and try way too hard to be socially aware.

Oh, and if you fit this typecast, you read the “it” books. Try Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. It’s replete with typecasting. Barbery’s international bestseller (that’s the kind of generic, self-aggrandizing tag used by the type that likes this sort of book) follows the friendship between a 12-year-old rich tenant and a 50-something concierge in an uppity Paris apartment.

Paloma, the 12-year-old, tells us at the onset the she will commit suicide on June 16. Until then, she’s on guard for any reason to live. We read her story through her journals.

Renee (or Madame Michel as we know her) is the invisible concierge with a passion for Dutch still-lifes, Leo Tolstoy, and classical music.

They’re smart characters. It’s a smart book. You’re likely to be a little bothered by the overly stereotyped minor characters. But indulge yourself in the accuracy of her typecasts. My favorite is Paloma’s older sister, a philosophy major who dresses like she’s poor and raves about Italian villas.

Paloma and Renee are brought together by the remarkably intriguing Kakura, a new tenant with exquisitely simple tastes. The three are bound, not by their shared genius, but their shared appreciation for beauty.

That’s Barbery’s answer. A deep friendship between the classes is difficult but possible if they can find a shared interest. Chance has brought these three characters into the same physical place but it is their tastes that formed the bond.

Barbery’s prose about art and music and food, like it’s subject, stops time. That’s the beauty, so to speak, of beauty. It surely seems to transcend our cultural preferences. But is beauty enough to be a soul satisfying relationship? It requires seeing elegance in a hedgehog. But read on. Even if you can see the elegance, you’ll find that social class can be a dangerous barrier to cross.

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