The story is set in an apartment building in Paris and is told in two voices in first person. Renee, 54, has been the building's caretaker for decades. She describes herself as a widow, short, plump and ugly. She is also extremely well-read and hides her intelligence from the rich folk who live in her building. Paloma, 12, is also an expert at concealing her intelligence. She lives on an upper floor with her diplomat father, neurotic mother and bossy older sister. Paloma has decided that adult life offers nothing of interest and therefore plans to commit suicide on her 13th birthday.
An elderly tenant dies and a new one moves in. The new guy is like a fresh breeze blowing the dust out of the rest of the inhabitants. The changes are especially marked for Renee and Paloma.
I hope the English translation does justice to Barbery's breadth of vocabulary. While I read, I kept my four-volume Dictionnaire Quillet de la langue francaise close at hand. (My mother thoughtfully bought me a compact French/English dictionary last year after seeing me go back and forth with the massive set of Quillet - I think I was reading Proust at the time. Unfortunately, only about one in ten of the words I'm looking for are in the compact dictionary, so it isn't very helpful.)
I was pleased to understand 'tergiversations' without consulting any dictionary, however. It was a new word to me when I read Muriel Spark's A Far Cry from Kensington (in English, of course) in July. Here, in The Elegance of the Hedgehog, I found it again, two months later. (Tergiversate: to practice evasions or subterfuges; to equivocate.) I won't tergiversate in my whole-hearted recommendation of this witty and moving novel of two unforgettable people.