Wanda's Reviews > The Elegance of the Hedgehog

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
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Feb 13, 2010

it was amazing

It has taken some time for me to digest this book enough to actually write a coherent review. The Elegance of the Hedgehog is quite a wonderful book, and well worth the energy one has to expend to read it. It has been called a novel. I am not sure that it is that, or if it is, it is a very unconventional one. The “chapters” are very short and they more or less alternate between the musings of two protagonists: Renée, a 54-year-old concierge in a luxury apartment house in Paris, and Paloma Josse, a precocious 12-year-old girl and the daughter of one of the most bourgeois families in the house.
Renee, an autodidact, skulks about like a spy among the intelligentsia, affecting the role of an unlettered concierge who secretly disdains Husserl’s philosophy, thinks about postmodernism, and is so passionate about Tolstoy she named her cat Leo. She must keep herself relatively invisible to the snobs who occupy her building, in order to keep her job. She wants to be left alone with her formidable intellect and learning for company. Yet she does yearn for friendship with someone who can match her IQ point for IQ point. To understand how she feels, imagine that you have an advanced terminal degree, get married, have babies and spend the next few years with toddlers as your main source of company. Arrghh.
Paloma, a brilliant child who is also self-educated, has decided that life is meaningless and is making plans to commit suicide on her 13th birthday.
One begins to suspect rather early on that these two have a great deal in common.
The first chapters are slow slogging and the book wanders in places, until the part where the celebrated restaurant critic upstairs dies and a cultured Japanese man takes the apartment. He suspects that there is more to Renee than meets the eye, and befriends Paloma. They decide that the concierge has 'the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary - and terribly elegant.'
In sum, this is something of a learned polemic stand against French snobbery, classism and hypocrisy.
The final chapters tug at the heart strings and to my surprise they found my husband in tears. I do admit they are moving. I won’t do a spoiler here.
What others have said about this book and the observations that they have made have to do with what they perceive to be snobbery. I disagree. This book is literary and it takes some work. It also is not a book for everyone; a bit of philosophy and literature background helps. It also helps to have google handy in order to look up that which is unclear. In this way it reminds me of Eliot’s The Waste Land (albeit not in the same league as that wonderful poem). Those folks who slammed this book all over Amazon and G.R. fail to understand that in France philosophy is still a compulsory subject and most people have a basic knowledge of the great thinkers in a way we don't in the U.S. This is why it was such a best seller in France, and why people in the U.S. may have problems with it. Just because one does not understand a book, does not make it a bad book – just a bad fit between reader and what s/he is reading.
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Trish Glad you liked it, Wanda. Liked it--heck--five stars means LOVED it. A colleague of mine felt the same way. My reaction to it was similar to my reaction to Tinkers . There are times when certain characters or turns of phrase just resonate unbearably with other things in our lives, and suddenly literature is not the escape nor the learning experience we seek. Perhaps a little like bulls and the color red. Clearly my opinion is not the majority opinion on Elegance , nor on Tinkers , luckily for the authors.

Wanda Very well put Trish. Thanks for that insight.

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