By October 9, 2008 3 Comments Read More →

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

The Elegance of the Hedgehog Cover
Speaking of the right book at the right time, I was fortunate enough to stumble across the French bestseller, The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, in a bookstore, and pick it up by virtue of its title and its publisher, Europa Editions.

But what really grabbed me, when I turned it over in my hands, was this line from a review:

Enthusiastically recommended for anyone who loves books that grow quietly and then blossom suddenly.”—Marie Claire (France)

The book captured my attention and I knew I just had to read it. And as soon as I plunged in, I was not disappointed. The novel is narrated by Renée, a 54-year-old Paris concierge at number 7, rue de Grenelle, a closet autodidact who reads philosophy and great literature and consumes high and low culture and Art with an insatiable hunger for more, and Paloma, daughter of a wealthy family that live at number 7, who ruminates on the pointlessness and ugliness of human beings and of life as she readies to kill herself on her 13th birthday. While this sounds morose and heavy, Barbery brings a light touch to the headiest of ideas and themes.

Renée is a great character, a woman who holds herself above those she serves through her clandestine intellectual pursuits, who dumbs herself down for her betters so as not to disturb their notions of the inner lives of French concierges. She is routinely rude, slams doors in people’s faces, and converses in the cultureless retorts attributed to her caste. Renée is a widow and has one friend, Manuela, the cleaning woman at number 7, who is elegant despite her station in life. Renée lives a carefully crafted hermetic life, until Paloma and a new resident come in to shake her foundations.

Paloma is studying Japanese and devours mangas, but what she is really doing is observing those around her with a scrutiny and a level of judgement well beyond her years. She starts a journal of profound thoughts as well as a “Journal of the Movement of the World” as she contemplates her death.

Both Renée and Paloma rail against the smug, self-satisfaction of the rich and well-born and the intellectually bankrupt, the “millennial prejudice” they find themselves forced to observe and perform within. Early on, Renée describes herself thus:

“I correspond so very well to what social prejudice has collectively construed to be a typical French concierge that I am one of the multiple cogs that make the great universal illusion turn, the illusion according to which life has meaning that can be easily deciphered.”

Renée also asks, “What is the purpose of intelligence if it is not to serve others?” But it is not until she connects with others and comes out of her shell that she begins to do this herself.

Barbery plays on these themes again and again, weaving in critiques and celebrations of literature and philosophy and art into a narrative that is simultaneously satiric and tender.

But perception and even philosophy only provides one vantage from which to see, and so many miss the other ways of seeing, miss the moments of beauty in everyday life. Both Renée and Paloma seek the best in life, while holding onto the worst; they challenge assumptions while holding stubbornly to their own; they are stunted until they begin to see and to connect. For so many of us, this is true. Therein, for me, lies the real power of this novel, its real message. These contradictions also make Renée and Paloma more real, believable and memorable.

Muriel Barbery 

A couple of recent articles and reviews posit whether a philosophical novel about class and intellectual inquiry could become a bestseller here, as it has in France. Critic Michael Dirda, in his review, has this to say about the two principal characters in Barbery’s novel: “These two characters provide the double narrative of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, and you will — this is going to sound corny — fall in love with both.” Could The Elegance of the Hedgehog become a bestseller here? I say we give it a try, one book group at a time.

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About the Author:

Misha Stone is a readers' advisory librarian with The Seattle Public Library. Follow her on Twitter at @ahsimlibrarian.

3 Comments on "The Elegance of the Hedgehog"

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  1. bookmark60@hotmail.com' Susan says:

    I saw this book at Books A Million in Myrtle Beach a couple of weeks ago. I read the back cover at the time and thought it would be too sad.
    I put it down. I think after reading your review I will go back to the book store to buy it. Thanks for the review.

  2. noreenbell@hotmail.com' Noreen Bell says:

    I have never re-read a book as soon as I complted reading it; I will be doing that with “The Elegance of the Hedgehog”. It has moved me beyond the everyday world while being more sure of what my everyday world is. The author and her charaters love words, grammar, art, music, film….all things that keep us from dropping into the abyss.

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