The Elegance of the Hedgehog

elegance of a hedgehog.jpgAuthor: Muriel Barbery (Translated into English by Alison Anderson)

Pages: 325

Genre: Realism, fiction, contemporary, french

We are in the center of Paris, in an elegant apartment building inhabited by bourgeois families. Renée, the concierge, is witness to the lavish but vacuous lives of her numerous employers. Outwardly she conforms to every stereotype of the concierge: fat, cantankerous, addicted to television. Yet, unbeknownst to her employers, Renée is a cultured autodidact who adores art, philosophy, music, and Japanese culture. With humor and intelligence she scrutinizes the lives of the building’s tenants, who for their part are barely aware of her existence.

Then there’s Paloma, a twelve-year-old genius. She is the daughter of a tedious parliamentarian, a talented and startlingly lucid child who has decided to end her life on the sixteenth of June, her thirteenth birthday. Until then she will continue behaving as everyone expects her to behave: a mediocre pre-teen high on adolescent 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 wealthy Japanese man named Ozu arrives in the building. Only he is able to gain Paloma’s trust and to see through Renée’s timeworn disguise to the secret that haunts her. This is a moving, funny, triumphant novel that exalts the quiet victories of the inconspicuous among us.

Thoughts: I’m pretty sure that was one of the only blurbs that almost exactly describes this book as it is. And I’m just going to start by saying, if you are put off by it, and think that it sounds a little too philosophical to your liking, then you are correct. It is very wordy, and complex, but that’s sort of why I liked it.

First off we are introduced to Renée Michel, who turns out to be lovely, if a bit on the shy side, 54 year old concierge. She is more than she seems, and is very good at hiding all her emotions behind the stereotypical, old, concierge mask that she’s had years of mastering.

“Personally I think that grammar is a way to attain beauty.”
― Muriel BarberyThe Elegance of the Hedgehog

Our other main character is Paloma Josse, a 12-year old, super-intelligent girl, who hides her intelligence to fit in. She lives on the 5th floor of the apartment Renée is the concierge of, and thinks the rest of her family are snobs. Paloma, on her thirteenth birthday, unless she can find something worth living for, beyond the “vacuousness of bourgeois existence” is going to set fire to the apartment, and in the process, commit suicide.

“We think we can make honey without sharing in the fate of bees, but we are in truth nothing but poor bees, destined to accomplish our task and then die.”
― Muriel BarberyThe Elegance of the Hedgehog

Now, it sounds a bit morbid, but right from the start, you get the typical French novel feel, with all of its little quirky aspects. The version I read was translated into English, from French, so there were a couple of things that seemed a little confusing, as you get when reading translated copies. But the language used in almost every sentence, was amazing. It reminded me of the way Markus Zusak writes, in both The Book Thief, and The Messenger, almost like every sentence has a double meaning. Literally every sentence seemed like it had taken a week to be crafted into a beautiful quote, and while this did get a bit tiring after a while, it absolutely matched the feel of the rest of the story.

Just as teardrops, when they are large and round and compassionate, can leave a long strand washed clean of discord, the summer rain as it washes away the motionless dust can bring to a person’s soul something like endless breathing.”
― Muriel BarberyThe Elegance of the Hedgehog

My favourite part of the book is when the third main character is introduced, which isn’t until about a third of the way through. Up until then, it was actually a bit hard to read the book in large chunks because nothing was really happening. We were gaining insights into the background of Renée and Paloma, and it wasn’t too exciting. The arrival of Kakuro Ozu really set the motion going. Ozu is a wealthy Japanese businessman, who moves into 7 Rue de Grenelle, the apartment both Paloma and Renée live in. He is the only person to connect with Paloma, and see through Renée’s clever mask, and in this way brings all three characters together.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog also discusses some really major themes and messages. For starters there’s the philosophy mentioned pretty regularly, and then all the other cultural aspects that both Renée and Paloma share an interest in. The author, Muriel Barbery, crafted and added these characters because they like, enjoy and represent the things that she liked and enjoyed. She expressed herself in this book, through her characters. The novel also mentions and involves social class, especially between the rich families that live in the apartment, and the not-so privileged concierge, Madame Michel (Renée). This also appears again regarding Manuela, who is a Portuguese cleaner. She is also Renée’s only real friend for a lot of the book.

“Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside she is covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary–and terrible elegant. ”
― Muriel BarberyThe Elegance of the Hedgehog

So, as you can see, even if it isn’t the typical intro-climax-resolution style book, The Elegance of the Hedgehog still incorporates important issues and themes which I think is what makes the story special. It could be about a normal French concierge, and how her life revolves around all the rich families who live above her in the apartment, but there’s nothing special about that. Nothing that makes me want to read it.

I’m not going to comment on the ending, only going to warn you that it is a sad book, but at the same time beautiful (isn’t it always the way?). The addition of Ozu makes everything better in the story, and makes it more enjoyable to read. I think, because of the language used, it feels like a very powerful book, right up until the last page.

“For the first time in my life I understood the meaning of the word ‘never’. And it’s really awful. You say the word a hundred times a day but you don’t really know what you’re saying until you’re faced with a real ‘never again’.”
― Muriel BarberyThe Elegance of the Hedgehog

Why you should read it: Because it is a fantastically well written story, that features great themes. If you like literature, philosophy, or anything French, then I reckon you’ll like this book. I think it fits perfectly into the same category of the movie Amelié for whoever has seen that.

Rating: star_rating_4-5_of_5


3 thoughts on “The Elegance of the Hedgehog

  1. There are a few fascinating points at some point in this article but I don’t know if I see them all center to heart. There may be some validity but I most certainly will take hold opinion until I consider it further. Great post , thanks and we want more! Added onto FeedBurner at the same time

    Liked by 1 person

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