Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Elegance of the Hedgehog - Muriel Barbery

Also reviewed by Emily.

Summary: We are in the center of Paris, in an elegant apartment building inhabited by bourgeois families. Renée, the concierge, is witness to the lavish but vacuous lives of her numerous employers. Outwardly she conforms to every stereotype of the concierge: fat, cantankerous, addicted to television. Yet, unbeknownst to her employers, Renée is a cultured autodidact who adores art, philosophy, music, and Japanese culture. With humor and intelligence she scrutinizes the lives of the building's tenants, who for their part are barely aware of her existence.

Then there's Paloma, a twelve-year-old genius. She is the daughter of a tedious parliamentarian, a talented and startlingly lucid child who has decided to end her life on the sixteenth of June, her thirteenth birthday. Until then she will continue behaving as everyone expects her to behave: a mediocre pre-teen high on adolescent subculture, a good but not an outstanding student, an obedient if obstinate daughter.

Paloma and Renée hide both their true talents and their finest qualities from a world they suspect cannot or will not appreciate them. They discover their kindred souls when a wealthy Japanese man named Ozu arrives in the building. Only he is able to gain Paloma's trust and to see through Renée's timeworn disguise to the secret that haunts her. This is a moving, funny, triumphant novel that exalts the quiet victories of the inconspicuous among us.
Summary and cover photo from

My Review:
I requested this book from the library in July. After months of waiting I finally received notice that a copy was reserved for me and rushed to the library to pick it up. After so much anticipation I could hardly wait to open and dive into this novel, but I probably should have. Life has been in one of those chaotic periods for the past few weeks, leaving me with only disjointed moments to read and during those moments my mind continued to drift so I was forced to read the same page two or three times before it set in. I'm telling you this upfront so you will understand my mind frame as I review this book that many found so entertaining. I truly believe that this is a book that one needs to devote full attention to in order to appreciate.

The story begins with Renee, a concierge of a lavish apartment building in Paris. This is a very intelligent woman who makes a point of hiding her insights. She carefully monitors her language and activities to give the appearance of an ordinary concierge. Within this building also lives a girl of 12, Paloma, who is also carefully monitoring her own activities so as to not give away the fact that she is so much brighter than her age suggests. The difference between these two characters is that while Renee is at ease within her made-up world, Paloma faces constant turmoil with her emotions. The first half of the book reads as diary entries written by these two main characters. There is much pondering on the meaning of life with limited profound thinking.

At the heart of this book is the issue of social classes and expectations in terms of intelligence depending on various classes. Renee spent much of this book worried that the rich tenants would discover how clever she was thus lose their trust. Paloma worries about her intelligence in relation to her age and how her thoughts make her an outcast. It was difficult to connect with these characters and overall I would have to deem the first half of this book boring.

Kakuro Ozu finally joins the story about half way through the book and with him the story takes an interesting turn. This character brings life to the two other main characters and perhaps to the entire apartment building. With Ozu's entrance comes the joining of Renee and Paloma. And when these two unite a story finally develops from their thoughts. Just as the author draws you in a heart-wrenching blow is thrown, rendering this story at least unforgettable, if not very likable.

There is no question that this author has a way of making words flow. Her word arrangement will have you rereading sentences for pure enjoyment. All the sentences within this novel are very descriptive and well thought. If only these sentence were combined in a way to create an intriguing plot.

My Rating: 3 Stars - a 2 star beginning yet redeeming towards the middle

If I had to sum it up in one sentence: A book speaking on the power of language, all the while containing too much philosophy, and not enough story.

1 comment:

MindySue said...

For curiousity's sake, how exactly does the Hedgehog play into this book....where does the title come from?


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