Jennifer (aka EM)'s Reviews > The Elegance of the Hedgehog

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
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Jul 12, 09

bookshelves: lonely-hearts-club, for-the-desert-island
Read in July, 2009

"this is the fear, this is the dread
these are the contents of my head..."


I've always loved that line from Annie Lennox's Why. This book is about the contents of two characters' heads: Paloma, the 12-yr old suicidal prodigy, and Renée, the 50-something cat-lady concierge. Be careful with these characters, and by that I mean: take care of them, for they are fragile, sad souls in need of understanding and in need, moreover, of someone--anyone--to see through their facades and see them for who they really are. And don't we all need that?

And be careful of them: for they will, despite their attempts to push you away with their overly intellectual babbling, their deliberate hiding, their desperate and unconscious need to repress their true natures to protect themselves from long-buried pain or more recent and ongoing torment, sneak up on you, seize your heart and send you reeling at the depth of what they reveal about being human, about being loved, about being validated, about being.

Their torment is simply the day-to-day experience of living when you are of a certain sensibility: when you think deeply, feel deeply, experience the full pain of injustice and hypocrisy around you and--even worse for these two trapped into the stereotypes imposed on them by their class and time and place--when you are disenfranchised, "out of time" and "out of place".

This is the story of two misfits who find comfort, eventually, gratefully, mercifully, in themselves and in others. Who reconcile their heads with their hearts, and find a way of being in the world that is bearable for them. This occurs through the intervention of a third character, Kakuro Ozu, who--while he has his own story, his own pain, his own needs--is somewhat secondary to the story.

Nothing happens in this novel, and yet two lives open up, blossom like a camellia (<-- simile chosen intentionally, important symbol), and then...

Well, I will leave it to you to find out. Please do.

The only way you will be disappointed by this book, I think, is if you allow the two protagonists to mislead you. If you see their endless philosophizing and pretense as anything other than what it is: a desperate need to cover up what can only be a similarly-deep and coherent heartache.

The ending is an absolute triumph, for the characters and for the reader. Which is not to say that it is a happy or unambiguous one. But it will send you spinning, it is so very unexpected, so very poignant. I burst into tears. Literally. (how many reviews have I written lately where I mention myself crying. I'm not a suck, really.)

Does it pull the strands of Renée's story together a little too neatly? Part of me thought so, but that was my head talking, not my heart. Despite everything you are reading, listen to your heart in this story, not to your head--your head, in isolation, will lead you astray and strip from you the richness of the story unfolding (a theme, and--for this fable--a moral, yes indeed).

Did I write once here that I hate fables? I believe I did. The Elegance of the Hedgehog (and what a fabulous title--it's what made me pick this up in the first place), along with Timothy Findley's Not Wanted On The Voyage are exceptions to the rule.

A few notes: Renée's first-person narration takes a surreal turn at the end--does it work? It pulled me out of the story a bit, although I quickly overcame it. I'd appreciate hearing others' viewpoints on that. Also, a very good grounding in Tolstoy's War and Peace, which shamefully I do not have, likely adds a layer to the meaning. My view is that it is not important to know Kant or the phenomenologists as well--this is part of Renée's charade, meant to be seen through. Agree?

Final note: the social satire is as delicious as the plum jam Renée uses to test the strength of a philosophical argument. I particularly enjoyed the ridicule of psychoanalysis, but then I am evil that way. hehe

Seriously recommended. On my "lonely hearts club" shelf. An unequivocal 5 stars from me.
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Reading Progress

07/05/2009 page 96
29.54% "So far: a frumpy concierge and a schoolgirl skewer the intellectual bourgeoisie by out-intellectualizing them." 2 comments
07/06/2009 page 172
52.92% "or thereabouts. The French even make crazy cat ladies stylish!! Lovely interplay between the schoolgirl's and the concierge's chapters."
07/11/2009 page 325
100.0% "Extraordinary. Unusual. Surprising. An absolute pleasure. I'm thinking 5 stars........."

Comments (showing 1-14 of 14) (14 new)

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Lucy Loved your review.


Julie Book club tomorrow night! I've got a couple of haters already... I am totally borrowing your nugget about being disappointed only because you've allowed the characters to mislead you. :) This is SUCH a fabulous review.


Jennifer (aka EM) thank you, Lucy!

Good luck, Julie ... haters? really? I'll be interested in the contrarian opinions. :-) Have fun!


message 4: by [deleted user] (new)

wow. really wonderful review. thank you.


message 5: by Kelly (new)

Kelly You know, I've stayed away from this despite almost picking it up many times- mostly due to a number of reviews that seem to make it out to be a ham handed class message with some pretentiousness thrown in to make it annoying. But your review convinced me that there might actually be way more to this than I've been hearing. Thanks!


Jennifer (aka EM) Oh, hello! Gosh, I forgot about this one ... thanks for floating it, Kelly. And I see I missed Ariel's comment -- thank you, Ariel.

Kelly, at the risk of an over-generalization based on a small number of conversations, I think it is tough--especially for North Americans--to fully appreciate the kind of social constraints imposed by a rigid class system. For those who struggle to empathize with that, I can see the validity of the "ham-handed class message" criticism. It helps to read EotH as a social satire, I think.

This novel is very French, and very Proustian (the latter I couldn't identify until after I read/reviewed).

I'll be interested to read your review, if/when you get to it!


message 7: by Kelly (last edited Jul 06, 2010 12:09PM) (new)

Kelly Hmmm. Well, the thing is I really want to like this. It's put out by my favorite publisher- Europa Editions, and I do love French stories. I read a lot about class systems- I'm going back to school for immigration studies, actually, focusing on Europe, and there's a lot of that tied up in it- and I usually find it interesting. So it has all that going for it. It's just the 'ham handed'/shoved in your face repeatedly part that bothered me. It made it seem like the book was was about liberal guilt, or at least something else than it seems it is.

But again, your review makes it sound like it's way more than that, and that it has more soul/feeling than those of my friends that have read it give it credit for. I probably will actually buy it next time I'm in the bookstore instead of putting it down. Thanks. :)


message 8: by [deleted user] (new)

Wonderful review - you've captured the essence of this book. For my review, I just linked here and said, read this!


Jennifer (aka EM) hahaha!!! Thank you, Catherine! I'll check yours out now..... :-)


message 10: by Jennifer (aka EM) (last edited Jan 09, 2011 07:40PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jennifer (aka EM) And Kelly, I'm sorry I missed your reply from -- omg, July! I do hope you've managed to read it by now. And if so, what did you think?


message 11: by Scribble (new)

Scribble Orca Jennifer this is really a lovely review. I'm going to suggest it for Brian's Review Hall of Fame.

(I've no idea about the book, and actually it doesn't sound like my poison, but you review it beautifully. 5 stars for you :D).


Jennifer (aka EM) Aww, you're far too kind GN. :-) It's an honour just to be nominated.

I'm glad you enjoyed my review, even if you don't end up reading the book. Hedgehog definitely lacks the cool factor, or any kind of edge, but I loved it just the same. I've recommended it to lots of people, to decidedly mixed reviews.


message 13: by Scribble (new)

Scribble Orca The only way you will be disappointed by this book, I think, is if you allow the two protagonists to mislead you. If you see their endless philosophizing and pretense as anything other than what it is: a desperate need to cover up what can only be a similarly-deep and coherent heartache.

This is probably the crux of the matter for me. I lack the empathy.


Lauren Great review. It's exactly what I'll tell my mom when she goes to read it. Thanks for the help!


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