The Elegance of the Hedgehog

by Muriel Barbery
ages: adult
First sentence: “‘Marx has completely changed the way I view the world,’ declared the Pallieres boy this morning, although ordinarily he says nary a word to me.”
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This book has been making the rounds over the last year or so, and I’ve come to a conclusion: you will either really love it (if you are a certain sort of person and it is the right sort of time) or really hate it (if neither of these things are true). To be completely honest: it is an incredibly pretentious book, full of Philosophy and Art and the Meaning of Life. There are times when you want to roll your eyes at the platitudes and the “smarter-than-thou” attitude of the whole book. (A common complaint is that one is just not smart enough to read this book.)

But, it’s also endearing in its pretentiousness; there are little moments of true charm, humor, and maybe even inspiration. My only advice: give the book some time to work on you. It starts with some heady philosophy, but then it settles in.

There isn’t much to the story. Our two main characters, 54-year-old Renee and 12-year-old Paloma, are both very brilliant, but neither one seems to know quite where they belong. Renee is a self-educated peasant that’s a concierge in a posh Paris apartment building; she knows the tenants expect her to behave in a certain way, and she’s more than happy to oblige. Paloma is at odds with her family: they are stuck in a rut, and she’s decided that life’s not worth living if all it has to offer is how her parents (or even the rest of the tenants) live.

Then Kakuro Ozu moves into the building. He’s not like anyone else: he’s introspective, intelligent, observant, elegant, and more than willing to reach out to both Renee and Paloma because he senses in them, as Anne would say, a kindred spirit. Age and class don’t matter; a friend is someone who is worth spending time with.

The ending is a bit abrupt, and, admittedly, not as moving as I think Barbery wanted it to be. But, even with that, it was an interesting and enjoyable book to journey through.

4 thoughts on “The Elegance of the Hedgehog

  1. I think you sum this book up perfectly, from the beginning to the end. I had to let go of the stuff I didn't really understand, because it was so worth it for those moments of insight and truth.

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  2. I've heard that a lot of the pretentiousness comes from the translation, particularly in the way the character speak. I've been told that in French the language is much simpler, which is interesting. I do wonder how much of the emotional impact gets lost in translation.

    I did enjoy the book, but I felt it really came together more after Ozu moves into the building. I felt that might have been done on purpose, that the two other characters' lives were sort of disorganized and pointless, and thus the book was, until Ozu showed up. As they all became more streamlined, so did the book. That's probably just me trying to look for meaning though.

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  3. I've had this book on my shelf for a few months now. I don't know when I'll get around to reading it, but it's good to know I should walk into it allowing myself to “let go” as needed.

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