The Elegance of the Hedgehog

I’ve been meaning to read The Elegance of the Hedgehog since I first heard of it two years ago, and have just now done so. That’s about par for the course as far as my TBR list goes. It’s all about options, though, right?

In her second novel (the first to be translated from French), Muriel Barbery gives us the story of unlikely friends who impact each others’ lives. Renée Michel, a diamond in the rough,  is the widowed concierge at a wealthy apartment building. She’s nothing to look at physically; in fact, one of her chief goals seems to be to blend into her surroundings by exactly fitting the stereotyped explanations of her employers. She deliberately breaks grammatical rules in their presence, and blares a TV so she can secretly read in another room. Beneath her uncultured facade, however, lies a true intellectual, who embraces beauty and art and philosophy in all forms. She scorns the unintentional comma errors of the elite residents, and views their empty pursuits as a waste.

Unbeknowst to Renée, she has a kindred spirit in young Paloma Josse, who sees that the adults around her are all either falsely content or futilely searching. Rather than await the same fate herself she decides she will end her life when she turns thirteen. In order to leave something of worth behind, however, she keeps journals of Profound Thoughts and the Movements of the World, hoping to find some sense of meaning and order.

Both their lives are stirred up upon the arrival of the new resident Kakuro Ozu, a Japanese businessman. He, too, looks for beauty and has found it, he alone seems to be at peace with himself. If Renée is willing, she may be able to let down her guard at last, and in turn be a role model for Paloma.

I’d heard the book compared on several occasions to those by Alexander McCall Smith, an author whom I really enjoy. In a sense this is true, as plot and character development is interspersed with wonderful little musings about everything from art and philosophy to the lifestyle of a cat. It’s the kind of book that makes you feel intelligent as you read it. I was surprised at how global the references were. Rather than focus on French culture, the characters espouse Dutch still-life paintings, Russian literature, and Japanese and American films. Muriel Barbery never gets to heavy-handed at one time, and often uses the thoughts to show parallels and connections among the characters. I have several passages I marked to come back to.

I had a hard time accepting Renée’s childhood, growing up in an impoverished rural family who came home from a hard day’s work and barely spoke to each other. This is meant to be justification for her distaste for the wealthy, and her tendency to hide herself from others. I’m fortunate to come from a loving family; the situation she describes seems completely foreign to me. Paloma’s adult outlook and cynicism also left a slight bad taste in my mouth as I read her sections. I longed for her to have some sort of childhood innocence as a protection. Overall, though I sympathized with the pair, I found them difficult to relate to or sometimes even like. Both tended to be egocentric and bristly.

Because of that, I liked the book a little bit less than I would have otherwise. Muriel Barbery nevertheless has a great capacity for philosophy and language herself. The Elegance of the Hedgehog is deserving of its praise, and I’m glad I read it.

Published in: on January 26, 2011 at 7:04 pm  Comments (1)  
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  1. […] Kusamakura (literally “The Grass Pillow”) is written from the perspective of a young artist traveling alone to the hot springs in the village of Nakoi. Once there, he is fascinated by the daughter of his host. It’s not actually a book where anything really happens, though; the author himself calls it a “haiku novel.” It consists primarily of the protagonist’s observations, impressions, and musings, reminding me almost in a way of The Elegance of the Hedgehog. […]

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