The Elegance of the Hedgehog

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

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.

Details

  • Paperback: 325 pages
  • Publisher: Europa Editions; 1st edition (September 2, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1933372605
  • ISBN-13: 978-1933372600
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.9 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars See all reviews (1,156 customer reviews)
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4 comments

  1. You are smart, but unschooled, a daughter of the poorest illiterate peasantry. Over the decades you have read your Marx and Kant, appreciated Mozart, immersed yourself in 17th century Dutch painting. You smuggle literature home in your shopping bag along with the turnips and cat food. You are Renee Michel and a concierge in a Left Bank apartment block serving the rich. You are an invisible drab, and no-one must ever suspect.

    You are precociously intelligent but only twelve and a half. Your sister, studying for her Masters degree at the Sorbonne, is a `beautiful person’ of barren soulless talent. Your mother is a vacuous socialist snob while your father is a senior Government official hiding behind his role. You know from Dawkins and all the rest that life is just a pointless primate struggle to reproduce your genes. Surrounded by so much empty posturing and mediocrity, what is the point? You are Paloma Josse and you are determined to commit suicide on your 13th birthday.

    A particularly loathsome apartment owner dies and someone new moves in. Wealthy, cultured and thoroughly civilised, perhaps Renee and Paloma, in their daily deceptions, have finally encountered someone they can’t hoodwink. Primary certainties are reworked as the story moves to its shocking conclusion.

    This is a beautiful piece of work: erudite, laugh-out-loud humorous and tragic by turns. It can’t have been easy for Alison Anderson to capture in English the sophistication of Muriel Barbery’s writing, but she’s made a fine job of it. Recommended.

  2. I am a voracious reader, but struggled to get through this one. A good chunk of the first part of the book is the existentialist musings of the primary character– which is OK if you read Foucault for fun, but I don’t and probably most other people won’t enjoy that either.

    The book drags on while nothing much happens, until the mysterious Japanese resident moves in about halfway through the book. He serves the same role as the Magical Black Man (google this concept if you haven’t heard of it) does in other books/movies, appearing out of nowhere to save the main characters from their humdrum lives (“Saved By Sushi”).

    Like other reviewers, I was irritated by the main characters feeling superior to everyone else. I was also annoyed by the blatant fetishizing of anything Japanese as exotic and culturally superior. I mean, gyoza is good and all, but it’s like, pub food.

    The book gains some momentum 3/4ths of the way through as the three main characters become friends. But then the book ends the way you ended your stories in third grade when you couldn’t figure out how to end them.

  3. (4.5 stars) With sales of over half a million copies in Europe, this clever novel, newly released in the United States, may make Muriel Barbery as much of a literary phenomenon here as she is there, despite the novel’s unusual focus on philosophy. Narrator Renee Michel is a fifty-four-year-old woman who has worked for twenty-seven years as concierge of a small Parisian apartment building. A “proletarian autodidact,” Renee grew up poor and quit school at age twelve, but throughout her life she has studied philosophy secretly, searching for knowledge about who she is and how she fits into the grand scheme of life. Grateful for her job, she finds it prudent to keep her rich intellectual life hidden from the residents, maintaining the façade of the perfect concierge, someone who lives in a completely different world from them.

    Alternating with Renee’s thoughts about her life and studies, are the musings of Paloma Josse, a twelve-year-old who lives in the apartment building, the daughter of wealthy parents who have active professional lives. Like Renee, Paloma pretends to be just average, carefully constructing her own façade so that she can fit in at school, though she has the intellectual level of a senior in college. Ignored by her parents and her school, Paloma plans to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday. As the lives of Renee and Paloma unfold and overlap, the rough parallels in their lives become obvious, both in their isolation and in their need to hide their talents.

    When one of the apartment residents dies, Kakuro Ozu, whom Renee thinks may be related to the Japanese film maker that she most admires, moves in. Paloma, too, is impressed with Ozu, bemoaning the fact that he has moved in just as she has decided to kill herself.Read more ›

  4. “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” transcends excellence. It is one of those rare books with a special inner quality that makes you ponder over life in a way only very few others can. After turning the last page, I was left staring into space, feeling bereft. I wished there was more to read, yet its ending befitted the whole tale. I now understand why it received so many wonderful reviews in France recently and why it became such a literary success. It fully deserves it.

    Just a brief summary, as described by both main characters -Renée and Paloma – introducing themselves in the beginning of the book, which is written in a diary form by each.
    Paris, present day. Renée is the widowed concierge of an elegant building in an exclusive area. Its inhabitants all belong to the upper class. She is, by her own admission, dowdy, unattractive, often grumpy and wants everybody to believe that she is the stereotype of all concierges, blending into the background, almost featureless. But Renée has a well-kept secret: she is an extremely cultured autodidact. She loves art, philosophy, literature, music. Aestheticism and beauty in all of its forms fascinate her. Renée keeps concealing this aspect of her life to the outside world, hiding behind the concierge’s screen -literal and metaphorical-.
    Paloma is a twelve-year-old who lives in the building with her rich family. She is distractedly well-loved by her parents and does not get along with her older sister. Paloma is an extremely bright, clear-headed, lucid child. She is so lucid it is uncomfortable -yet to the reader she also conveys tenderness, and her wittiness is remarkable- .Read more ›

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