The Elegance of the Hedgehog

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

4.1 14
by Muriel Barbery

ISBN-10: 1933372605

ISBN-13: 2901933372609

Pub. Date: 09/02/2008

Publisher: Europa

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

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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.

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Hedgehogs aren't native to America, but you don't have to be French to sniff out at least some of the contradictions in the title of Muriel Barbery's European bestseller. Her novel both depicts and hopes to appeal to the connoisseur of humanity who can appreciate exquisite qualities unacknowledged by others. One of her two Parisian diarist heroines is a concierge, the other a suicidal adolescent. They sound conventional, but that's precisely the point: they both work very hard to achieve stereotypicality. As the frumpy concierge Renée says, "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 a meaning that can be easily deciphered." From her position as a teenager, Paloma casts a jaundiced eye: "In our must constantly rebuild your identity as an adult, is wobbly and ephemeral, so fragile, cloaking despair and, when you're alone in front of the mirror, it tells you the lies you need to believe."

Renée appears to be a prickly, homely hedgehog, but that appearance is a deliberately crafted façade masking her inner elegance of taste and sensibility. Her life's work has been to appear the perfect cat-owning, cabbage-stewing, television-blaring concierge so that she can really spend her time reading philosophy, cooking delicious morsels, critiquing grammatical solecisms, and watching the old Japanese movies of Yasujiro Ozu. Rather charmingly, she also likes Blade Runner. Every now and then in her interchanges with the tenants her mask slips -- she refers, say, to a relatively obscure work by Marx and Engels -- but, as she caustically notes, the privileged tenants' conditioning conspires to conceal her: "I find this a fascinating phenomenon: the ability we have to manipulate ourselves so that the foundation of our beliefs is never shaken." Her waspishness can take on the overtones of Diogenes, revealing dishonesty and inauthenticity in unexpected corners:

Colombe Josse is...a sort of tall blond leek who dresses like a penniless Bohemian. If there is one thing I despise, it's the perverse affectation of rich people who go around dressing as if they were poor.... Not only is it ugly, it is also insulting: nothing is more despicable than a rich man's scorn for a poor man's longing.

As the novel opens, Paloma, because of her disgust with the world around her, has decided to kill herself on her 13th birthday. Mme. Renée isn't exactly happy in her life, but she has become comfortable with her private arrangements.

In their diaries, both Renée and Paloma specialize in recognizing naked emperors -- about philosophy: "Phenomenology is a fraud"; about a food critic: " To write entire pages of dazzling prose about a tomato...without ever seeing or holding the tomato is a troubling display of virtuosity." As the novel pingpongs back and forth between their diaries, there's a reader's pleasure in seeing -- being privileged to see -- the quirky tastes and judgments Renée and Paloma share. These are among the most fascinating moments of the book, allowing us to play the discerning detective, letting us exercise our qualities of connoisseurship. The scene -- sidelong and subtle -- in which the two finally find each other is, to my taste, the most moving in the book.

We are not the only ones to appreciate these tangy yet supersensitive souls. Things begin to change when one tenant dies and a new tenant moves in: a single Japanese man, a distant relative of the director Ozu. He turns out to be another exquisitely perceptive connoisseur. Yes, our Cinderellas will get to go to the ball. Whatever rags of cynicism and fear Renée and Paloma share will fall away; they become clothed in shiny hopefulness. "Don't worry, Renée," concludes Paloma, "from now on, for you, I'll be searching for those moments of always within never."

Barbery has written an inspiring and heartwarming tale -- unless, that is, you happen to practice the virtues of caustic clearsightedness that Mme. Renée and Paloma preach. Then you might notice that their targets are too easy. After all, no one's surprised to find skinny, shallow, and sexually squeamish matrons in the 7th Arrondissement. I might have been more impressed with Paloma and Renée's discernment if they'd found a spark of humanity on the upper floors of 7, rue de Grenelle. Instead, Barbery has stacked the deck. All the characters who are meant to be authentic -- in an existential sense, of course -- are either poor or oddities among the haute bourgeoisie. It is obviously impossible to be self-aware if you have money -- unless you happen to be Japanese. You might also notice the book is, under the prickles of its cultural sophistication, deeply sentimental. Plotlines and backstories, including an absurdity straight from a Victorian melodrama, pop up just in time to tug a heartstring and prompt a tear.

I have to admit it's flattering to be thought the sort of reader who has an eye for social satire, a yen for art, culture, and philosophical ideas, and a warm heart, to boot. For the first two-thirds of this novel, I was rooting for Mme. Renée, our elegant hedgehog. In fact, when I first began reading this book, I thought Barbery might be alluding to the famous book on Tolstoy by the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who was himself quoting the Greek poet Archilochus (Barbery's name-dropping thing is easy once you try): "The fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing." So I'd like to persuade myself that one of Barbery's satirical targets was precisely the kind of sentimentality that takes over the last third of her book and that there's one big profound message here. Alas, I cannot make my thinking as wishful as that. Now -- based on the end of the novel, which I cannot possibly under any circumstances reveal -- I'm reminded that a leading cause of hedgehog deaths in Europe is being squished in the middle of the road. --Alexandra Mullen

Alexandra Mullen left a life as an academic in Victorian literature to return to her roots as a general reader. She now writes for The Hudson Review (where she is also an Advisory Editor), The New Criterion, and The Wall Street Journal.

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The Elegance of the Hedgehog 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 14 reviews.
Fish_Head More than 1 year ago
Whenever I'm not sure I have the attention span to take on a possibly challenging book, I order the audio version and listen in the car. _The Elegance of the Hedgehog_ is particularly good in audio because there's something about hearing a little girl's voice as she waxes philosophical that is fascinating. In the beginning I was listening to the ideas and not having any real attachment to the characters. I was more interested in Paloma's sections just because of her voice, I think. My husband and my daughter could jump in the car at any point and listen to the story and get into it. Around the time Monsieur Ozu arrived in the building I was more interested in Renee's story, and I would sit and listen in the driveway for a long time, not wanting to turn it off. I have to say I went into this book reluctantly-- my friend chose it for bookclub, and half of the group didn't get through it. I'm so glad I stuck it out (although I admit there were some places where I didn't listen as closely to the philosophical ideas as I might have) because the end was incredibly rewarding. Some of the characters in _Hedgehog_ are big fans of _Anna Karenina_, so I'm reading that now, but I think I'm going to have to get the audio version of that one as well!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was surprised to see the negative remarks by those who read the book because I just finished listening to the audio book and thought it was very moving. Perhaps the reading was dry or difficult to process, but I wholeheartedly recommend the audio. I enjoyed listening to the narrators weave a wonderful, rich story... I laughed and cried along with the characters, feeling as if I were a part of it.
Frisbeesage More than 1 year ago
The Elegance of the Hedgehog is the story of two people, Renee, the concierge at a fancy Paris apartment building, and Paloma, a precocious 12 year old living in the building. Both Renee and Paloma spend a lot of effort hiding their true selves from the world. They feel that their intelligence and knowledge would not be understood or appreciated by those around them. When a wealthy Japanese man moves into the building he brings them together and shows then their best selves. In the end this is Paloma's coming-of-age story. Its a beautiful, inspirational tale, very different then other coming-of-age stories, yet authentic and believable. The characters are fantastic, real and interesting. I listened to this book on audio. Babara Rosenblat is one of my favorite readers and she does not disappoint in this book. She brings Renee to life in all her grumpy, pessimistic, loveliness. It's nice to have two readers as the two narrators are so distinctive, and Cassandra Morris does an admirable job with the voice of Paloma.
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Curious-Clara More than 1 year ago
I listened to the audio version of this book and think it's definitely a book that lends itself to listening. The two women who read the parts of Renee and Paloma are just wonderful. They are very expressive and one gets the true feeling of listening in on the lives of the residents of the apartment building. A friend who also listened to the audio version agreed that this story really comes alive in the audio. The personlities of M. Ozu and Manuela and everyone else are wonderfully portrayed in the reading. Yes, as others have stated, this is a book of ideas and philosophy as opposed to plot. But the acting talent of the readers lent so much to my enjoyment and understnding of the book.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I listened (on cd) to the last CD, three times. The reading was great . . . the characters offbeat and wonderful. A thought-provoking book . . . one that I will enjoy again and again and keep in my library to loan out.
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Corgidog More than 1 year ago
As we forced ourselves to listen, we became more interested and were able to stay focused. The author takes awhile to develop the characters and the plot is small compared to the character formation and philosophical tangents. The writing did sound beautiful and complicated - this book is probably better to be read. I did not like the ending as I like happy conclusions generally, and it didn't seem fitting with the direction the author was heading with the characters. Our bookclub had a very intense discussion and for the most part felt it was a worthwhile read. My advice is not to listen to it.