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[230] The Elegance of the Hedgehog – Muriel Barbery


“Indeed, what constitutes life? Day after day, we put up the brave struggle to play our role in this phantom comedy. We are good primates, so we spend most of our time maintaining and defending our territory, so that it will protect and gratify us; climbing—or trying not to slide down—” [97]

The highly educated Renée Michel has been a concierge in Paris for twenty-seven years. As befit to her social position as a concierge, Renée chooses to remain discreet for fear of giving herself airs. The self-taught scholar subjects herself in a voracious pursuits in philosophy, music, art and Japanese culture. Owned up to the social prejudices that define her, Renée has long recognized that to be poor, ugly, moreover, intelligent condemns one in the society. Even though intelligence is no longer seems as adequate compensation for ugliness and poverty, she takes pride in her mind, sound and unrivaled. With cold and distant eye she scrutinizes lives of her building’s tenants.

Some people are incapable of perceiving in the object of their contemplation the very thing that gives it its intrinsic life and breath, and they spend their entire lives conversing about mankind as if they were robots, and about things as though they have no soul and must be reduced to what can be said about them— [34]

Asymmetrical in age, condition, and circumstances is Paloma Josse, a twelve-year-old daughter of a parliament member who has the brain of a college senior. Raised in a very privileged background, the precocious and perspicacious girl has come to terms with life’s futility. To prevent herself from making the same inevitable mistake that most adults have made, Paloma has decided to terminate her life on her thirteenth birthday, sparing herself a life of absurdity and emptiness. Until then she will continue hiding her genius behind a mask of mediocrity.

The mystery remains intact, but all your available energy has long ago been wasted on stupid things. All that’s left is to anesthetize yourself by trying to hide the fact that you can’t find any meaning in your life, and then, the better to convince yourself, you deceive your own children. [22]

Filled with caustic humor and philosophical discourses, The Elegance of the Hedgehog is an enjoyable read. The biting humor and wittiness remind me of The Uncommon Reader. With the simple plot (although it doesn’t seem to be plot-driven at the beginning) and sudden denouement the book truly mobilizes the consciousness of literature. As fictitious as it imposes to be, literature roots in the truth of our day-to-day experience. The one thing that separates literature from reality is the ability of literature to make the fulfillment of our essential duties (in life) more bearable. Both in and out of the novel, this purpose is being served. Paloma and Renée both hide their true and finest qualities, withdrawing from the world that they feel has no place on them. But ironically they come to terms with their kindred souls through a total stranger, a retired Japanese businessman who moves into the building. How these three individuals cross paths and alter the course of their lives are serendipitous.

325 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss] Could Muriel Barbery have redeemed the name of French literature?

31 Responses

  1. I picked up this book at the end of summer – then I heard from two people that they didn’t like it much so I thought I would give it some time before I start reading. Your review has me thinking it might need to move a bit further up the TBR list.

  2. I think you pose an interesting question at the end, Matt. A lot of the more modern French lit that I’ve approached has seemed very unpleasant and overly philosophical (or something) and just not very enjoyable to read. I did read Madame Bovary just a few weeks ago which is a classic and found that really enjoyable, so I’m wondering where things started to go off track. I might have to try this and see if I find it more accessible.

  3. I’ve been considering this one for quite some time, but now I’ll definitely be reading it. Love the choice of quotes!

  4. I read this book last winter and absolutely LOVED it! It is a book that I desire to re-read at some point, but right now there are just not enough hours in the week.

  5. Good review! This is one of those books I always think about reading but never actually do. I’ll have to give it a whirl one of these days.

  6. I love the page 97 quote. Looking forward to this book (bought it recently). Thanks for the great review.

  7. This is one of my all time favorite books of this year. It is just brilliant! I’m so glad you enjoyed it! Barbery has a new book out (or maybe its not out here in the US yet, not sure) and its called Gourmet Rhapsody and I cannot wait to read it!

  8. This is next on my to-read list, and I am very excited to start.

  9. I’ve only read good reviews of this book I think! I really want to get to it but you know how it goes.

  10. I’ll read it simply because it has the world hedgehog in the title. Is that shallow?

  11. Hello, Matt! I read this book this year and I really enjoyed it. I loved reading about those two “closet intellectuals” and how the book somehow reminds us to look beyond the veneer.

  12. “Could Muriel Barbery have redeemed the name of French literature?”

    Oh boy. What ruined it? I’m quite a fan of certain French novels (modern or less so); I have to wonder what book(s) might have given you such a gloomy opinion of French literature…

  13. Juliann:
    The only reason I can think of for people not to like the book is the occasional digression in philosophy. The treatise in art and beauty doesn’t take a philosophy major to figure out. I enjoy the book no less. 🙂

  14. Steph:
    The contemporary French literature to me has preponderated on on forms and philosophical (and other) digression rather than focusing on the story. Madame Bovary might very well be the last book in French literature that I enjoy for a long time!

  15. JoAnn:
    It’s delightful but also deep, very thought-provoking. The two characters are very likable. 🙂

  16. Molly:
    I can very well imagine being cooped up at home on a wintry day with this book. It certainly warms your heart and also makes you think about the important issues of life. 🙂

  17. Amy Reads Good Books:
    It never occurred to me to pick this one up, let alone read it. The cover alone conveys the message that it’s YA lit! Then the hype of the book actually discouraged me from reading it because it’s all over everyone’s radar. But…I was wrong! 🙂

  18. diane:
    It’s pretty right on. In just a sentence or two, it captures how many people live these days—chasing after money, status, the bags that carry, the clothes they wear. There is no essence inside so materials become the solace for the emptiness inside.

  19. Nadia:
    I heard Rhapsody Gourmet, although it’s her second book, is really the first book because it concerns a tenant of the building where Renee works as a concierge. It revolves around the food critic, Monsieur Arthens, who has died in The Elegance of the Hedgehog.

  20. Kari:
    You’ll be turn the pages quickly in no time. 🙂

  21. iliana:
    I still recommend the book even if you won’t get to it right away. It’s a solid keep in case you want to stock up on good reads. 🙂

  22. Elena:
    It’s no more shallower than my judging the cover of the book. I thought it’s a YA lit and I passed. But…I have been proven wrong! 🙂

  23. Peter:
    I think the two closet cases remind us that nothing is ever absolute in life. Never be bound by one’s own assumptions. I love how this book approaches that of a fable, which makes it a very enjoyable, quick read. 🙂

  24. Biblibio:
    *Ugh* Despite the fact that French literature influences heavily on modern world literature in 19th and early 20th centuries, I couldn’t bring myself to finish any works written after 1960, pretty much after Albert Camus. I did start a book by Saint-John Perse but never finished. The works of J.M.G. Le Clézio, who won the Nobel Prize in 2006, were not very accessible to me. But I will try his books again. Émile Zola and Louis-Ferdinand Céline would be my “recent” favorites.

  25. I would not have picked up this book if I saw it in the stores. I think you’ve changed my mind. 🙂

  26. […] Boston Bibliophile Shelf Life Vulpes Libris Page247 Caribousmom books i done read an adventure in reading A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook […]

  27. Mae:
    Someone else had changed my mind as well. I’m glad I have read it! 🙂

  28. Very interesting. I like the kind of books which allow room for soul-searching and which see their characters coming to terms with life. I have added it to my reading list. 🙂

  29. I liked this one, too. I read this summer that the French value rhetorical education, and I think it shows in this novel.

  30. […] translated books? 6. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery tops the list of translated literature. The others were The Reader, Crime and […]

  31. […] [translated by Alison Anderson] was just, ya know, everywhere. A post that stands out is from Matt who loved the book, and, much later when I’d begun blogging in earnest, from Kevin who […]

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