The Elegance of the Hedgehog

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

3.8 355
by Muriel Barbery

ISBN-10: 1933372605

ISBN-13: 9781933372600

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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Edition description:
New Edition
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Product dimensions:
5.38(w) x 8.66(h) x 0.97(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Table of Contents

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 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 355 reviews.
ManUpWearATeeShirt More than 1 year ago
I was weary of "Hedgehog" when my friends came to me in class on the day we picked what we would read for our book groups. We were all avid readers and didn't want to have to deal with students that would just use sparknotes in order to pass. This book looked interesting enough, and also had the sort of difficultly that would scare off anybody we wanted to avoid. I am only fifteen, and even though I like to read, I don't consider myself to be very intelligent. That being said, the book was very daunting at first. The language was complicated, and I always had a dictionary by my side and a pen in my hand so I could write in definitions. Reading was occasionally tedious. My group decided to create a blog with a vocabulary list, predictions, and chapter summaries. There were times where we poured ourselves over only a couple of pages until we finally found meaning. It was a bit like one large riddle, and we were determined to find meaning. After a while, the book either became a bit easier to read or we became accustomed to the language. It went from taking me an hour to read ten pages to zipping right through it. Even though it was an effort to complete, every single one of us agreed that it was one of the best books we've ever read. This book will make you laugh, cry, contemplate, and take notice of things you may have never seen before.
Carbentley More than 1 year ago
This was just a delightful book. The two main characters are totally unique and quirky and become unlikely friends. There are many good movie and book references in it, which I always love, and there are some interweaving plots which bring a hodge-podge of personalities together. It is about who is really your family. And it treats the issue of how silly the rigid class boundaries are, and how they can keep you from discovering great treasures in one another.
FlashSR More than 1 year ago
This book has been added to my list of all time favorite books. I was drawn to it initially by the title, without having read any reviews nor heard from anyone who had read it. The author quickly takes the reader to the luxurious apartment in Paris where the characters share their thoughts and minds. The combination of the intellectual, emotional and spiritual is what makes this story so powerful. Beneath the daily musings of the characters and their observations of their world lies the framework of our existence; the importance of beauty and art; "the moments of always within never." This book made me laugh, cry, and reach for my dictionary. It is a book that I will read again from cover to cover but right now, I find myself opening it to any random page and reveling in the powerful and beautiful writing. The combination of the descriptions of daily life among the wealthy, the discourse on such lifestyles and the "profound thoughts" shared by the 12 year old child offer an entertaining and thoughtful romp that will resonant with anyone who has questioned what its all about. And most importantly, remind us to look beyond the surface. ( and...Bravo to the translator!)
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A good book about families who live in a small apartment building in Paris and the seemingly ordinary woman who is the building's caretaker. There is little interaction and "neighborliness" among the residents -- everyone lives his or her own life and doesn't seem very concerned about other people or even their own family members. The story is told through the perspectives of a smart 12 year old girl who feels she has nothing to live for and the middle-aged building concierge who is really intellectually and spiritually superior to the residents of the building who consider her to be practically invisible. Everything begins to change when a long-term resident dies and his apartment is sold to a wise Japanese man who befriends the concierge and the girl. The book is a little difficult to read initially -- you might need a dictionary! But, after sticking with it a bit, the book makes you think about what the people around you might really be thinking and feeling. An unexpected ending.
capCP More than 1 year ago
"The Elegance of the Hedgehog," may be a little puzzling for readers (as it was for me) because it requires an initial effort to absorb the author's plan to present her story. But once you get going, it's wonderful. I had to remind myself that the author, the characters, and the story depict life in France, which is quite different from life in America. And I had to get used to the alternating chapter style, which actually tells two stories, one of Renee, the concierge of a residential hotel, the other of Paloma, a 12-year-old girl who is super smart and disenchanted with life. Only midway through the novel do the stories become entwined. Paloma and Renee become fast companions and friends of each other, and in doing so find a real reason for living. "Hedgehog" reminded me of the movie "Up." They both remind adults to see and meet the needs of others. In so doing, human beings find their reason for being.
thewanderingjew More than 1 year ago
When I closed this little book, all I could do was sit back in wonder. I heard the word "WOW" slip from my lips. This book makes you think. Once you get over the unusual use of rarely used and very cerebral vocabulary words, which may confound you, you are drawn into a beautifully written tale about two main characters, separated by generations and background, whose lives parallel each other. Both are philosophers of sorts, both searching for the meaning of life in a world in which they feel like misfits, in which they have an alternate secret life in order to survive. It reads like a comictragedy. The contrast between the 57 year old concierge Renee, and Paloma, the not quite teenager, is stark. Yet, they are so similar! They are both hiding from the world for different reasons which are really the same! They are afraid to show the world who they really are or what they really know for fear that discovery will be their very downfall. One lives near poverty level and the other in the lap of luxury. Both learn about the meaning of life, accidentally and quite innocently, through each other. Each of the characters is poignant and well defined. I highly recommend this book.
bethannemandia More than 1 year ago
it's very rare that a book changes a person. i remember specific books that have changed my life. changed the way i think, the way i view the world, the way i view books. madame bovary was the first book that did that for me. this book is now added to that list. i loved this book. i loved the individual voices of both renee and paloma...and how each of them viewed the world. the insight that we get from each of these incredible intelligent, but lost and hiding women, was so telling. each of their respective stories showed us secrets that the two shared with no one else...when their stories converged...i was ecstatic. i knew that their meeting would be monumental, even though it would be quiet. i especially found renee to be a wonderfully beautiful character...funny because she speaks of herself as course and ugly. her insights and philosophies were incredibly enriching. her past, present and, sigh, future, were of great concern to me. i wanted her to become more. i wanted her to share herself with mr. ozu. i was, and still am, quite fond of her. after reading this book...i feel changed. i feel the need to reflect on my cup of tea...i need to reflect on the true 'movement' of the world....i need to find my camellia on the moss.
Miss_Pi More than 1 year ago
The beginning of this book is a little bit slow. I'm sure if that is a problem from the translation or if that is how Barbery meant for the beginning to be. Once you make it through the slow part however, this book is heart-breaking, beautiful, touching, and so poignant. The chapters could read as philosophical essays at times. I was so busy with my highlighter throughout the whole reading. I wouldn't recommend it to casual readers because it is indeed somewhat verbose, but for an avid reader with an extensive vocabulary it is beyond lovely. It quickly become one of my favorites and will be re-read again and again over the years I feel.
bookbusy More than 1 year ago
This book almost made my bookclub list. I thought it was a pompous read for the first half of the book because the author felt it necessary to pound the point of the two key characters, a French concierge and a teenage resident in the apartment complex, having high levels of hidden intelligence. This hidden intelligence and the "real" elegant nature of these two characters is found behind the hedgehog facade. Neither character are very likable in the first half of the book. A cleaning woman friend of the concierge actually helps keep the book afloat from the beginning. That said, midway I was hooked into the story primarily through the introduction of a new resident, who appears to be the only person who sees the hidden elegance. Even though the reader will know this character will bring out the best in these two forlorn people, it is done in a winning way. I softened and enjoyed the transformation. This is not an earth scattering story, but it is one that tries to look beyond personal appearances and general expectations. I found myself easily picturing Yolanda Moreau, the wonderful actress of the French movie "Sapphine", as the concierge and it worked. To be fair, this is a translated work I believe and so some of the author's nuances may have been lost in translation. Spoiler alert: I cried.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It took a while to really like this book, but stay with it and you will! It is not a light, beach read and you will probably need a dictionary a few times to get the character's message. It is a thought provoking read from many dimensions. Read it for my book group and the comments were mixed. I definitely thought it was one of the top ten we have read in five years together but others felt it was way too tedious to get through the first 200 pages to make the rest worth while.
DottyBrittany More than 1 year ago
Paris...a building in a nice area, with nice people with all their prejudices however...We see them live, we like them, we laugh...
Fine analysis of the behavior, thinking of the inhabitants ...a modern sketch of nowadays people in Paris.

A huge success in France, this book has been read and enjoyed by very different readers...
nboyars More than 1 year ago
Bought this based on the great reviews. Found it very slow moving with characters I couldn't identify with or like. The two monologues (told first person by the protagonists) were extremely pedantic -- meant to show us that these people are so intelligent that they are friendless and have to pretend to be as stupid as normal people to get along in the world. I gave up halfway through. The two characters had still not met each other.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is certainly a book I would not recommend. It was pretentious and the characters were so very irritating in their brillance. They seemed to remove themselves from the mainstream based on their supposed intelligence. The only reason I continued to read this was because it was a book club selection.
steveforbertfan More than 1 year ago
I could not even finish this book. The story rambled, it was boring, finally I just gave up. I guess there is a book out there for everyone, this one was not mine!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Let me start by saying I have never before written a review, but was so affected by this book i had to. I love vocabulary and it was enchanting listening to how the author so masterfully used language to express ideas. But it would go on and on and ON about something so irrelevant you wanted to scream. I made myself push through the endless dribble and finally about two-thirds into the book you start to invest yourself in these interesting characters and start to see some story developing, only to have the rug violently pulled out from under you! I was SO disappointed with the ending, and SO dissatisfied, that I almost didn't want to start another book for awhile. I felt gun shy that another author would take my emotions and trample them with no regard. I can't remember ever feeling so betrayed by a story. This author is permanently off my list.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is my favorite. I would especially recommend it for teen girls.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read the original French writing of the book, but since there doesn't seem to be a nook version, I will review here. This book is beautifully written, with characters that you can connect with and relate to. Paloma is brilliant, and questions the importance of life and our reasons for existence. Bravo!
jrwils56 More than 1 year ago
Love the book. Lots of tongue in cheek humor that is subtle. I feel like the author and I have had the same reading list.
georgousIK More than 1 year ago
DON'T READ THIS BOOK. How this book could be a best seller is beyond me. I do a lot of reading and this one was a waste of time I could have spent reading something much better. I read this for one of my bookclubs and no one, except for the person who picked it to read, liked this book. It seemed to only be a way for the author to spout all of her philisophical thinking, and that drug on and on. The only reason I gave it 2 stars instead of 1 is because what little bit of plot there was was somewhat interesting.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The best book I read in the past 3 years! I pace my reading not to finish so soon. Great writing, sensible, profound. I ca hardly wait to read the author's first novel.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
What a lovely read
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It took awhile for me to get into this book, and there were passages in the first third that should have been edited down, but by the time I got to the end I was sobbing. I did not want to leave these characters and they have stuck with me many months later. The author has obviously lived through a great loss - those passages mirrored my experience so completely I felt I could have written them myself - although not nearly so well, and the passages of joy and discovery were powerful enough to lift my spirit.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Admittedly, not a book for everyone. In fact, I put it down the first time I started to read it. I had just read another book that had touched me deeply; I made it as far in "Hedgehog" to the point where Paloma declares her intention to commit suicide. Couldn't bear the thought of reading what I thought was going to be a fluff piece after reading a previous book that had so deeply affected me. I picked "The Elegance of the Hedgehog" once more, months later after a friend recommended it. There must be something more to it than a spoiled, precocious pre-teen. So glad I did. A little further on in the book, Renee speaks of the camellia on the moss of the temple and reflecting on its beauty and significance and I was hooked. I identified with both Renee and Paloma. I have often seen incredible beauty and laughable absurdity in everyday life; this book affected my being like few others have. Above all, the aspect that most deeply impacted me was finding another person (the authour/characters) who could be so profoundly affected by those simple wonders of beauty; the absurdities cited were for me, a shared chuckle. I must admit to keeping my electronic dictionary close at hand, the language of the book is not always easy. The time I invested in researching the vocabulary and also researching the artwork, philosophers, one of the music pieces cited in the story made me identify all the more with the solitary concierge. Not all was foreign to me though, I have done much reading/learning on my own; having the opportunity to glean even more information was an added joy. I will be re-reading this wonderful book before reading anything else. The conclusion of the book, which had its own beauty, surprised and shocked me; hit me with such force that I read the last twenty pages or so with tears quietly steaming down my cheeks. What a treasure this book is. Thanks to my dear friend for convincing me to give it a second chance.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Read this for a book discussion group. Had a hard time getting into it but persevered. Then I became absorbed. But the ending made me mad. I feel that the author violated an important principle of good novels. Won't spoil it for anyone else.
Steve Latta More than 1 year ago
A sincere "coming of age" book for both a younger and an older generation. My usual genres are history, suspence, and science, but I fell in love with the characters and the style of this book. Impossible not to love "the hedgehog."