"The Elegance of the Hedgehog" is a French novel by Muriel Barbery. The novel is primarily a character study of concierge Renee Michel and one of the young tenants, Paloma Josse. The novel changes point of view between the two characters as it tells the story of their unlikely friendship. Most of the events of the novel focus on these two, so only a couple of other characters are important to the plot or the character study.
Renee Michel is the main character of the novel, and the metaphor in the title is used to describe her. She is said to be like a hedgehog with a prickly exterior that keeps people away but with an elegant and solitary inner life. Renee is a 54-year-old widow and the concierge of the building in which she lives. She has never been to college, and she protects her appearance as an uneducated, working class woman. However, in her secret life she is a self-taught philosopher and literary analyst, and she enjoys the finer things in life such as gourmet foods, classical music and art films.
Paloma Josse is a 12-year-old girl who lives in the upscale building for which Renee is the concierge. Paloma shares many of the interests that Renee has, and she also feels alienated from her family and the other tenants of the building, whom she views as superficial. Like Renee, Paloma hides her true intelligence. Paloma doesn't want the other children at her school to know about her precociousness because she doesn't want to be outcast. Paloma does not feel a connection to others and finds no meaning in life, so she makes a plan to kill herself on her 13th birthday.
After a restaurant critic who lives in the building dies, wealthy businessman Kakuro Ozu moves in. Kakuro is quickly able to see past both Renee and Paloma's pretenses, recognizing the unacknowledged intelligence in both. He becomes friends with both Renee and Paloma, and he helps them both grow. He becomes romantically linked with Renee, who starts to embrace her real identity more openly. Renee then helps Paloma understand that she does have opportunities to create meaningful relationships with others, and eventually Paloma calls off her plans to commit suicide.
Manuela is a minor character in the book, but she is an important one. Manuela is a cleaner for the building in which Renee is the concierge, and she is Renee's only friend before Paloma and Kakuro come along. Manuela has been friends with Renee since before her husband died, and she knows the secret behind why Renee is so distrustful of the upper class: Renee's sister dies in childbirth after being raped by a wealthy employer. Manuela supports Renee as she opens up to new friends and starts to let go of that past.