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The Elegance of the Hedgehog – Book Review

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elegancehedgehog The main thing isn’t about dying or how old you are when you die, it’s what you are doing the moment you die. In Taniguchi the heroes die while climbing Mount Everest. Since I haven’t the slightest chance of taking a stab at K2 or the Grandes Jorasses before June sixteenth, my own personal Everest will be an intellectual endeavor. I have set my goal to have the greatest number possible of profound thoughts, and to write them down in this notebook: even if nothing has any meaning, the mind, at least, can give it a shot, don’t you think? – from The Elegance of the Hedgehog, page 26 -

Renee Michel, concierge of a wealthy apartment building in Paris, screens her true nature from the residents she serves. She is a woman whose prickly attitude and appearance belies her love of art and literature, someone who finds beauty in a camellia and is horrified when a comma is misused in a sentence.

Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside, she’s covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary – and terribly elegant. – from The Elegance of the Hedgehog, page 143 -

Paloma Josse, at age twelve, is plotting her own suicide before she turns thirteen and has decided to burn down the building in which she lives. But before she dies, she vows to write down profound thoughts in haiku. Highly intelligent and mature beyond her years, Paloma is fascinated by the beauty of movement such as a petal falling from a rose. She is also adept at observation…of the world at large and of her family whose dysfunction includes a depressed mother and a misguided sister.

When Kakura Ozu, a distinguished Japanese man, buys the apartment on the fourth floor of Renee and Paloma’s building the three are drawn together – people who appreciate art and simple beauty, and are seeking meaning in life.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog started slowly for me – in fact, I nearly stopped reading it at one point. But I persisted, and I am glad I did because Muriel Barbery has written an exceptional story about appearance, class, beauty, and the search for meaning in one’s life. Written in alternating viewpoints between Renee and Paloma, the book shows how an older lady from a poor background is not that different from a twelve year old being raised in a wealthy family.

We sit there for countless minutes holding hands, not speaking. I have become friends with a lovely twelve-year-old soul to whom I feel very grateful, and however incongruous this connection may be – asymmetrical in age, condition and circumstances – nothing can taint my emotion. - from The Elegance of the Hedgehog, page 289 -

The novel is rich in philosophy and thoughts about culture, art and literature. But it is the secret lives of its characters which drive the narrative and keep the reader turning the pages. Barbery’s writing is beautifully wrought and captures the small things in life which bring joy, wonder, and hope.

When of a sudden Old Japan intervenes: from one of the apartments wafts a melody, clearly, joyfully distinct. Someone is playing a classical piece on the piano. Ah, sweet, impromptu moment, lifting the veil of melancholy…In a split second of eternity, everything is changed, transfigured. A few bars of music, rising from an unfamiliar piece, a touch of perfection in the flow of human dealings – I lean my head slowly to one side, reflect on the camellia on the moss of the temple, reflect on a cup of tea, while outside the wind is rustling the foliage, the forward rush of life is crystallized in a brilliant jewel of a moment that knows neither projects nor future, human destiny is rescued from the pale succession of days, glows with the light at last and, surpassing time, warms my tranquil heart. – from Elegance of the Hedgehog, page 106 -

The Elegance of the Hedgehog was translated from the French by Alison Anderson. A sensation in France when it was published in 2007, the novel has won the hearts of Americans as well, which seems to validate Barbery’s theme that cultural differences do not preclude finding the beauty in simplicity. The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a simple story that explores complex ideas and leaves the reader fulfilled.

Highly recommended.

4hStars

Other blog reviews:

Beth Kephart Books

Page 247

Boston Bibliophile

Jenny’s Books

Musings

Shelf Life

Vulpes Libris

Fleur Fisher Reads

She is Too Fond of Books

Book Dilettante

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24 Comments

  1. diane says:

    This one is on my list. So many have enjoyed this one. Thanks for the great review Wendy.

  2. Kathy says:

    Wow, that must be some book if you went from almost quitting it to rating it four and a half stars. Great review!

  3. Mel says:

    I loved “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” also. There is a really lot in the book. It is a great account of a reading life and it is just a lot of fun also. Thanks for the very good review.

  4. Teddy says:

    Wonderful review Wendy! This book is on my TBR.

  5. Caribousmom says:

    You’re welcome, Diane :)

    Kathy: It was such an amazing transition…I really didn’t like the book for the first 60 or 70 pages, and then it started to come together for me and left me feeling completely different…

    Mel: I agree there is a lot in this book…it is perfect for book clubs.

    Teddy: Thanks :) Hope you’ll enjoy it.

  6. Anna says:

    Good to know that it picks up and is worth the read. I have a problem with books that start off slow. This one sounds good. Thanks for the review!

  7. Caribousmom says:

    Anna: I know what you mean about slow starts…I don’t usually give them a chance…but this one was definitely worth sticking with it.

  8. kailana says:

    I really want to read this! I had it out once from the library, but didn’t get a chance to read it before it went back. I am going to have to try again!

  9. Les in NE says:

    Excellent review, Wendy! One of my customers recommended this to me, so I decided to buy it. I haven’t gotten to it yet, but it’s good to know it takes a while to get into. I felt that way about Life of Pi, which turned out to be so good. But the one book I am so glad I stuck with past the slow parts is Atonement. It became my #1 read the year I read it and I almost quit on it. Sometimes, 50 pages just isn’t it. But I also think my gut/inner voice knows when it’s going to turn around and be a winner, ya know?

  10. Caribousmom says:

    Kailana: I’ll look forward to reading your thoughts on the book :)

    Les: Thank you! Yes, I would compare it to Life of Pi in that initially it doesn’t grab you, but eventually it just carries you along and builds your appreciation of the book. I also really liked Atonement … and like you, it was a slow start for me, but I stuck with it because it was a book club read (just like this one was!). I don’t use 50 pages as a cut off…I read until I just can’t read it anymore :)

  11. Jeanne says:

    I just finished reading this one, and am writing up my review of it to post later today. As you say, it starts slowly but my reading gained momentum after the first 50 pages. I don’t usually search for reviews before writing my own, but I was curious to see if Paloma struck anyone else as a female Holden Caulfield (and yes, the Washington Post book reviewer mentions that).

  12. Jeanne says:

    Done posting, and I linked to this review!

  13. Caribousmom says:

    Jeanne: Loved your review! And thank you for linking to mine!

  14. LN says:

    This book is an enormous bestseller in France. There is even a film that as been adapted from it. I have started to read it last year but found it a bit slow at the beginning and therefore stopped. Maybe I should give it another try :-)

  15. Caribousmom says:

    LN: It is REALLY slow in the beginning…but I recommend sticking with it (based on my own experience!). I would love to see this as a movie.

  16. Mel says:

    Yes, I would also love to see this as a movie-casting Renee would be a great challenge.

  17. Caribousmom says:

    Mel: I agree!

    LN: Thanks for letting us know!

  18. Wendy – our impressions really were similar! You were able to articulate the underlying theme of the novel (finding the beauty in simple/everyday things) in a way that I wasn’t. I had marked the passage about Ozu’s lamps (do you remember that, Manuela commented that he didn’t have pairs of lamps, only one of each item; then she and Renee started talking about how many people needed spares so they would feel safe, etc.) anyway, that passage spoke to me, but I wasn’t able to put it neatly into my review. Since you’ve read the book, and honed in on the simplicity, I thought I’d share those thoughts with you.

    Yikes, that’s a run-on comment, isn’t it!

    Going now to check the status of the movie ….

  19. Caribousmom says:

    Dawn: I added a link to your review in my review ;) There were so many gorgeous passages in the book (yes, I remember the lamps scene). Thanks for dropping by and leaving your comments. I hadn’t realized there was a movie coming out…I wonder how it will compare to the book?!?!?

  20. I gave this book 5 stars, I was so impressed with it. I saw it as a satire on contemporary French manners.

  21. Caribousmom says:

    Book Dilettante: *nods* I think you’re right about it being a satire. Thanks for dropping by!

  22. Faustina Starrett says:

    Overall, a worthwhile read. Slow starter but last chapters rewarding with unexpected closure. E njoyed the music links referenced for the film.

  23. Caribousmom says:

    Faustina: I agree – it starts slow, but rewards you in the end…glad you also found it a worthwhile read :)