Thoughts on: The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery


by - 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.

2 Responses to “Thoughts on: The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery”

  1. Sophia Khan Says:

    Yep, couldn’t agree with you more. I did like its basic message of how important it is to be known and understood by another, whatever your age/background etc. and I can see how this would make a good film BUT I was horribly aggravated by the obtuse vocabulary and the almost name-dropping braininess of it all. I even hate the way she drops a few crumbs about Eminem (please) and Paloma liking Manga, as if to show, hey, I’m not an annoying elistist really. I’m sure there’s something in here about ‘Art’ and ‘Beauty’ (capitals, please) transcending culture and class so maybe bonding over Buffy and a shared love of show tunes isn’t as ‘transcendent’ as loving Dutch still-life and Anna Karenina, but I like Buffy and show tunes. I am obviously a philistine. The endless philosophical musings were occasionally interesting but more often I just let them wash over me in the interest of trying to read on and find the plot. To me, their purpose in the novel should be to reveal character and motivation, not to be pointlessly intellectual. I can see the author is a good writer but I don’t believe she is a good novelist. Everyone in my bookclub know found the first half a slog, and then the second half really rushed. I’d have liked much more of Ozu/Renee/Paloma getting to know each other. But it Barbery can’t do it, as her characters are just too shallow and two-dimensional (despite all their Musings). **SPOILER!!!!** Despite the fact that at the end of the novel Paloma is suddenly and mysteriously the most important thing that Renee leaves behind her, we hardly see ANYTHING of how the two of them connect…I also have problems with the sudden expository introduction of the sister, and then the instantaneous ‘cure’ by Ozu and then the way the book ends! It’s seems like Barbery took the easy way out or just didn’t know what else to do with her. I admire writers like CSLewis, Bertrand Russell and Angela Carter who are unmistakeably great intellects but who write with extraordinary directness and clarity, humour and wisdom. It is NEVER about mystification. Barbery can’t compare. BUt you know what, I think this may be a French thing, where intellectualism IS elevated to an art form, initiates only. End of rant.

  2. Aimee Burton Says:

    Haha, Sophia, a very eloquent rant indeed!~ You bring up some interesting (and true) points about the book, but none more true than the fact that this seems to be a writer who prefers to flaunt their intelligence by using ‘intelligent’ words and ‘intelligent’ ideas.

    I couldn’t feel more disdain right now for that ‘intelligence’.