REVIEW: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

I finished this novel nearly a month ago, but have been too busy to give it the full review that it deserves – before now. Before I start it should be known that it took me nearly 4 months to read The Elegance of the Hedgehog, a book of a mere 359 pages, and in fact I have started and finished 5 books in that time. The main reason for this is I didn’t really like The Elegance of the Hedgehog in the beginning and found it a bit grueling to read, especially compared to the others I was reading at the same time. The reason I found it grueling is that it is a very intellectual book with many literary references and words that were unfamiliar to me. Now, if you have been reading my blog for a while, or you know me, you will know that while I do enjoy a great work of literature I also enjoy a variety of more low-brow fiction and so am not as widely read as I would like (I try plus I’m still young! plenty of time yet to get to all those classics!), so at the start of this book I was forever stopping to refer to my trusty dictionary, or google something which left me feeling quite the dunce 😦

I don’t really enjoy feeling stupid while reading (who does?) , so I often found myself putting this one aside for days or weeks on end after one session. This was until I started to take it in my bag to classes and prac, a strategy I use on books I’m avoiding because the time on the bus and train forces me to give them a try. This strategy certainly worked on this little number and I found my feelings toward it quickly changed.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a french book that was originally published in 2006 under the title L’élégance du hérisson then translated into English in 2008. The book revolves around a central location – 7 Rue de Grenelle, a swanky apartment building in Paris – and only a handful of events happen anywhere else. The narrative is told through two main characters and narrators: Madame Renee Michel, the middle-aged concierge; and Paloma Josse, the 12-year-old daughter of one of the wealthy families that resides in the building. Madame Michel is a 54-year-old widow who has worked at 7 Rue de Grenelle for 27 years, and she is a self-confessed autodidact (yes this was one of the words I had to look up :S) in areas of literature (namely Tolstoy), art, music and film. However, she has kept the secret of her cultured self for all these years and played the part of the simple concierge as she fears loosing her job or being condemned by the uppity residents of the building. On the other hand Paloma Josse is disgusted by the bourgeois lifestyle of her family and others in the building and feels there is nothing to look forward to in adulthood. Therefore she has decided to kill herself and set fire to the building on her 13th birthday to avoid the future of the adults around her. However, Paloma is an incredibly intelligent and  logical young lady, so in the time leading up to her suicide she has decided to keep records of things in the world around her that may be worth living for – titled “Journal of the Movement of the World” and “Profound Thoughts” – and it is through these journal entries that her sections are narrated.

The story starts out kind of bleak, with both main characters feeling pretty melancholy about their lives, but everything changes when a distinguished Japanese gentleman moves into the building. It was at this point that my interest accelerated because the plot really started to develop when previously the chapters were mainly character development. The groundwork that Barbery had laid down in the earlier chapters meant that I was emotionally attached to Renee and Paloma by the time their stories and characters grew and I wanted to know more. The addition of the Japanese gentleman – Kakuro Ozu – also lightened the story a fair bit because he is a very kind and deep person that appreciates the same art and culture as Renee. Ultimately this book explores a lot of themes, but mainly it explores the philosophies of life and how people find comfort in the world and people arround them, and that really appealed to me. However, it wasn’t all serious cultural references and philosophy, in fact there was some real laugh out loud moments, especially the times when Renee is having tea with Manuela, a maid who cleans many of the building’s apartments and always brings delicious pastries.

I became so entrenched in the story and characters of The Elegance of the Hedgehog that by the end (when an event happens that I won’t spoil) I was struggling not to burst into tears on the train, and I failed a tad. This is a real gem of french literature and would make a great book club book for a group that isn’t afraid to read something so peppered with references, because it provides a lot of fuel for discussions. Despite the fact that it took me forever to read, I’m glad I persevered with The Elegance of the Hedgehog and it is sure to be on the list of my favourite reads of 2011. I also have borrowed the film that was based on the book – The Hedgehog – and look forward to watching it soon. Who knows, it may even make an appearance in a future Top 10 on book to screen adaptations 😉

I give The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery:

4 ½ / 5 stars

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