Thoughts on: The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery
by Aimee Burton - June 13th, 2011
The Elegance of the Hedgehog is one of those literary phenomenons. You know the ones – plucked from relative obscurity, a story that doesn’t seem like it would appeal to the masses somehow does, and before you know it millions of copies are sold and book clubs everywhere are discussing it and your friend tells you it’s a must-read.
Well, The Elegance of the Hedgehog finally made it onto my book club’s agenda.
Translated into English from its native French, The Elegance of the Hedgehog involves the thoughts and movements of two characters, the first being Renee – a Paris apartments concierge, and the second being Paloma, an adolescent who contemplates the correct frame of mind in which to commit suicide. Her family resides in the apartments at which Renee works.
Our book club had a fairly heated discussion about the novel once we had all finished it, fuelled by wine and tapas at our local haunt. People were of similar opinion – they liked it – up to a point (well, one person hated it and didn’t mind saying so), but overall found it to be a – dare I say it -pretentious read.
The idea of the novel appears to be that the two are largely ignored by the world, but that they are clearly very intelligent and can do such things as ‘appreciate art’, while the rest of the guests and staff at the apartment appear to see them as below the station befitting their intelligence. Paloma’s perspective is distinguished from Renee’s because it takes the form of diary entries with ‘Profound Thoughts’ as titles…but otherwise I couldn’t tell the voices apart. And I wasn’t the only one at book club to have this problem. There are some humorous depictions of fellow guests, but largely the book seems to hinge on addressing the importance of these two characters and their recognition of supreme intelligence in each other. Renee, the book tells us, is the hedgehog, with a refinement belying her external prickles. But i tired early on of being told who was refined and who was not, and found the characters strangely typed, rather than multi-dimensional beings with which I could experience a connection.
While I am glad I read it (it’s so annoying when you’re the last person in the world to read something and so your opinion about unread book means diddley squat), I also didn’t find it a particularly enjoyable read. I would much rather a book that is simple and says what it means to say, than a book that appears intelligent, but allows the message to degenerate into froth and puffery. You can decide for yourself which category The Elegance of the Hedgehog falls into.
Year of Publication: 2008.
Number of Pages: 336.
Book Challenges: None.