The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

29 July, 2010

I think I’ve been very lucky in my reading choices this year. And it keeps getting better. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery has been on my wishlist for a long time until my happening sister got it before me. Lucky for me, she’s the sharing sort, so I finally brought it home where it sat on my shelf for months. And you know what, I wish I’d reached out sooner for this book because it’s probably my favourite book of the year so far. I loved everything about it. The subversive humour, the gentle warmth, the spiky asides. Everything. Even the ending, which broke my heart a little but which brought home the message that I think Barbery was trying to make in a gently meandering way throughout the book.

I loved the main character Renée Michel, the concierge of a grand Parisian apartment block on the Left Bank. I also particularly loved Paloma Josse, the lonely, precocious and cynical 12 year old set apart from her peers by her acute intelligence and who is contemplating suicide. And most of all, I loved Kakuro Ozu, the gentle Japanese businessman who moves into the apartment block and is the catalyst that brings about the changes that everyone desperately longs for. It was a pleasant surprise for me to find a Japanese connection in this novel as all I knew about it was the concierge who hid behind a mask of ignorance and the clever child who both share a love of the philosophical.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog was smart, funny and made you see the foibles and petty prejudices of the middle classes, and the difficulty in which people who don’t share the same views find themselves. Not that Barbery is saying that being different is good or that following the crowd is mindless and stupid. It’s not as simple as that, of course, and Barbery should know since she’s a philosophy prof and spends her career thinking about these sorts of things.

For example, take Renée’s musings on being a concierge:

Similarly it has been decreed that concierges watch television interminably while their rather large cats doze, and that the entrance to the building must smell of pot-au-feu, cabbage soup or a country-style cassoulet. I have the extraordinary good fortune to be the concierge of a very high-class sort of building. It was so humiliating for me to have to cook such loathsome dishes that when Monsieur de Broglie – the State Councillor on the first floor – intervened (an intervention he described to his wife as being ‘courteous but firm’, whose only intention was to rid our communal habitat of such plebeian effluvia), it came as an immense relief, one I concealed as best I could beneath an expression of reluctant compliance. (p.16)

Hilarious.

And regarding one of Paloma’s pet peeves:

My mother, who has read all of Balzac and quotes Flaubert at every dinner, is living proof every day of how education is a raging fraud. All you need to do is watch her with the cats. She’s vaguely aware of their decorative potential, and yet she insists on talking to them as if they were people, which she would never do with a lamp or an Etruscan statue. It would seem that children believe for a fairly long time that anything that moves has a soul and is endowed with intention. My mother is no longer a child but she apparently has not managed to conceive that Constitution and Parliament possess no more understanding than the vacuum cleaner. (p.47)

I love her. And don’t you love the cats’ names? Hysterical.

Barbery’s tale is peopled with characters who go to great lengths to hide who they really are behind a facade created to placate others into believing that everything is in their rightful place and the social etiquette is observed. However, there is always the danger of exposure which underpins their daily routine. It seems as though Barbery’s characters feel that being alone may be the answer, but when they meet someone who sees them for who they are, something changes.

Some may find this book pretentious, but I found it warm, kind and hysterically funny. It is, after all, a book about friendship. So before I gush too much, I urge you to try this. I, on the other hand, am going back to try Barbery’s first offering, The Gourmet which features one of the other residents in Renée’s apartment block and is also published by Gallic Books. Or I may just go back and read this book again. Wonderful!

I read this for Paris in July and also for the TBR 2010 Challenge. Yay, progress.

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16 Responses to “The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery”

  1. Colleen Says:

    I thought this novel was pretentious but that in no way diminished my enjoyment of it. I think certain writers can make pretension interesting, in which case, I’m all for it. I’m thinking of Orhan Pamuk who I believe is unrivalled in this area, and yet his work is so compelling! Glad you enjoyed Barbery!


  2. Oh my, I’ve read so many wonderful things on this book — will have to put on my wish list and give it a go! Thanks for the post and reminder!

  3. Nymeth Says:

    I love your enthusiasm here! I did read a few reviews where the bloggers found it pretentious, but like you said with the right amount of lightness and humour that can work. I really hope I’ll love this as much as you did.

  4. winstonsdad Says:

    I m going to have to read this at some point it seems a real marmite book people either love it or hate ,all the best stu


  5. After reading a positive review of this I bought it for a good friend of mine, after reading your review as well I can’t wait to steal it 🙂

  6. Iris Says:

    I had seen this book around, but you did a great job in recommending it and it is now somewhere at the top of my wishlist.

  7. Mystica Says:

    Thanks for the wonderful review (just before my Chennai trip scheduled for next week). In between the sari shopping, is a time slot for Landmark and this book is on that list.

  8. chasing bawa Says:

    Natalie: Pleasure! I hope you enjoy it.

    Nymeth: Oh, I hope so. But I would be interested in your thoughts anyway. http://incurablelogophilia.wordpress.com has a very good review which made me think I may have to re-read the book.

    winstonsdad: I think ‘marmite’ is the perfect word to describe people’s reactions!

    jessicabookworm: Ha ha, that’s the best way to 1) satisfy your book buying urge and 2) be able to read it without any guilt!

    Iris: Yay. I will definitely be interested to read your thoughts. I get really overwhelmed by how I feel about a book that I feel I never manage to critically analyse it.

    Mystica: Have a great trip and hope you return with lots of books!

  9. Tamara Says:

    I, like you, put this to the top of my favourite reads. I read this one last year for ‘lost in translation’ challenge, but this year read ‘the gourmet’ for ‘Paris in July’. Barbery writes like I would like to I think…. I just enjoyed her descriptions. Some of the characters anoyed me alot, but so do some people in real life. That’s what I think she did well..I recommend picking up the other book soon. Barbery is currently working on her third novel…

  10. Audrey Says:

    I loved this, especially the ending!

  11. chasing bawa Says:

    Tamara: She’s working on her third novel? Yay, there’s more! I loved Barbery’s descriptions too. Many of her characters were annoying, and she exaggerates, but I think that makes them more vivid. I enjoyed her book tremendously.

    Audrey: You liked the ending? Really? It wasn’t too bad but I wasn’t expecting it at all and she took me by surprise.

  12. Violet Says:

    I read this a while ago and really loved it. I didn’t think it in the least pretentious. For me, it was wise and funny and sad and beautiful.


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