Thursday, October 27, 2016

'The Elegance of the Hedgehog' by Muriel Barbery


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.

This is another best seller I only just got around to reading. The back cover told me 'resistance is futile. You might as well buy it before someone recommends it.' It sounded so promising I took them up on that and found the story wasn't what I expected. It sometimes got my back up.

The novel focuses on the inner lives of two main characters, Renee is an apartment building concierge who has a secret passion for delving into philosophy, literature and art. Paloma is a highly gifted twelve-year-old who is so disenchanted by what she sees in the world around her that she decides to set the apartment on fire and commit suicide when her thirteenth birthday arrives.

These two characters almost scared me off writing a review, because I'm pretty sure they'd tear me to shreds, as they do everyone else. They blast the people around them non stop (in their own heads), often for what seem to be fairly forgivable transgressions, such as accidental misuse of grammar and wrong placement of commas. And they keep waffling off on long tangents, full of dense words in big paragraphs which kept losing my attention.

Apart from being so pedantic, they sometimes come across just as snobby as the snobs they enjoy cutting down to size. For example, neither of them can stand Pierre Arthens, the food critic. They wonder why he'd choose to waste a talent with words on such a frivolous subject. Well, isn't that strong prejudice against those who believe good food is worth writing about? I'm sorry for any food bloggers who might happen to read the book.

Another thing neither Renee nor Paloma can stand is pretension. They make their snidest digs at people who show it, yet both like to elevate their own positive qualities. Renee calls herself an autodidact, which means a self taught person, but isn't it arguably a pretentious word to use? And Paloma keeps a record which she actually calls her 'journal of profound thoughts'. I have no problem with them being a bit pretentious, but wish they'd shown some grace toward others who also share the very human tendency of wanting to show themselves off to the best advantage.

It gets a bit much when they keep referring to the 'nasty little minds' of their friends and relatives. After all, is a bit of pretension and social snobbery any worse than being harsh and critical? And if others aren't as intellectually-minded as Renee and Paloma, well, can they even help it? At the start, I thought it would be nice to be as clever as those two, but changed my mind if it means thinking condemnatory, grumbly thoughts about my fellow men all the time. I'd rather be oblivious and easy-going.

One main theme is Renee's anxiety to keep her highbrow taste in reading a secret from the people she works among. She gets pretty obsessive about it, and I found myself wondering why she'd feel so strongly. It turns out her motivation for hiding her passion is fear that people will think she's trying to set herself above her station. But since she disparages most of her acquaintances anyway, why would she care what they think? If it comes to that, if you lived in the apartment building, would you care if the janitor read Tolstoy? I clean houses and also write books. What's wrong with having a variety of jobs and interests? Are Parisians really as judgmental and shallow as she thinks? I did enjoy the scene when it dawns on Renee that she's actually made a friend, even though their races, social status, financial situations and evident 'success' appear to be poles apart.

I wasn't a fan of the ending. Whoa, the last few pages were more eventful than the rest of the book put together, but I felt it was sad and needless drama. I'm sure others could tell me why it had to be that way, but I still don't think I'd buy whatever they had to say.

Even though I'd never recommend it or read it again, I found it interesting enough not to put down (only just), and there's the occasional quote-worthy observation to make us think. It occurs to Renee that 'literature's mission is to make the fulfillment of our essential duties more bearable', and Paloma decides that she won't be vain about her high intelligence since nature made her that way, and she can't take the credit.

Overall, I think the coolest part of the book is the fact that Paloma's family's pet cats are named Constitution and Parliament.

2.5 stars


  1. Hi Paula, interesting take on the book. I guess Renee and Poloma were both intellectual snobs (perhaps that is subtle irony) & 12 year-olds can often be pretentious while calling out the pretensions of others.

    I enjoyed the book - though I notice it has also garnered a lot of one & two stars as well a five stars on Goodreads.

    The final sentence on my GR review sums it up for me "I did enjoy "Elegance of a Hedgehog" (despite it's very slow start and flights into philosophical musings) for its subtle depiction of beauty found in the moment, in Art and in when humans truly connect with each other."

    1. Hi Jenny,
      With Paloma, I agree that we can make some allowances for pretension with 12 year olds, even smart ones :)
      I only noticed the one and two stars on GR after writing this, and was relieved that others had similar issues with it to the ones I had.
      However, I can't deny it is original, and as I said, I didn't want to put it down in spite of all I said.