Tuesday, June 29, 2010

"The Elegance of the Hedgehog" by Muriel Barbery

Summary: Renee Michel has been the concierge at the apartment building of number 7, rue de Grenelle for twenty-seven years.  She hides her knowledge and intellectualism from the wealthy residents of the building, who prefer their concierge to fit into a stereotype of a bumbling servant.  Paloma Josses is twelve years old and also lives in the building; she can't stand her snobbish family and has decided to commit suicide on her birthday.  Both Renee and Paloma hide their talents behind a facade of average, and in doing so, repress any real shot at life, but when a new resident moves into the building, both women are challenged to make a change.

Musings: The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a book which is centered, at its core, on two characters who--while probably not realistic--are nonetheless full-fleshed.  Renee goes to laughable lengths to hide her true interests from the building's residents, but in quarantining herself from the world and becoming a self-imposed near-hermit, she conforms to her position's stereotype as well.  Paloma sets out to record her "profound thoughts" and observations on the "movements of the world" before she ends her life, and in doing so reveals her intelligence and her naivete.  It's only when the reader becomes invested in these two characters that the book really gets moving.

And for me, that investment didn't come until more than half-way through the book.  Renee's and Paloma's meditations on life, Art, and Beauty border on pretentious, as does Barbery's choice of sentence structure and vocabulary.  There's a level at which one can empathize with people who want to rise above others' expectations, but there's also a point at which assuming one is so far beyond others just becomes snobbery.  Barbery's characters sometimes have a hard time riding this line.

The introduction of Kakuro brings out and softens both Renee and Paloma, and it was when his character entered that I became endeared to the novel.  Kakuro is clearly too perfect, more a foil to the women than a man in his own right, but his attentions bring out the best true selves of the protagonists.  I was not thrilled with the ending, which seemed a bit cheap given all the detail put into the rest of the book, but I still finished it on a high note.

I'm a big fan of short chapters, and Barbery uses that structure successfully in the book.  Renee's musings on life alternate with Paloma's journal entries, exposing the similarities in two people of very different circumstances.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a very sweet book with a unique cast of characters, and while I didn't retain any of its philosophical musings, the quirky characters undoubtedly will stay in my mind.


  1. I enjoyed your well written review! You're more generous with the book than I was - 'border on pretentious' and 'riding the line' while I found it firmly on the wrong side of the snobbery line. I thought the ending was hilariously incongruous.

  2. Haha, I can totally see where you're coming from. Maybe I was just feeling kind. :) Perhaps the ending's there for everyone: to tick off those who did like it and to make happy those who hated it all along anyway!