Summary and book reviews of The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

By Muriel Barbery

The Elegance of the Hedgehog
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  • Paperback: Sep 2008,
    336 pages.

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Book Summary

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.

Chapter 2: The Miracles of Art

My name is Renée. I am fifty-four years old. For twenty-seven years I have been the concierge at number 7, rue de Grenelle, a fine hôtel particulier with a courtyard and private gardens, divided into eight luxury apartments, all of which are inhabited, all of which are immense. I am a widow, I am short, ugly, and plump, I have bunions on my feet and, if I am to credit certain early mornings of self-inflicted disgust, the breath of a mammoth. I did not go to college, I have always been poor, discreet, and insignificant. I live alone with my cat, a big lazy tom who has no distinguishing features other than the fact that his paws smell bad when he is annoyed. Neither he nor I make any effort to take part in the social doings of our respective kindred species. Because I am rarely friendly — though always polite — I am not liked, but am tolerated nonetheless: I correspond so very well to what social prejudice has ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. True life is elsewhere…
    One French critic called The Elegance of the Hedgehog "the ultimate celebration of every person's invisible part." How common is the feeling that a part of oneself is invisible to or ignored by others? How much does this "message" contribute to the book's popularity? Why is it sometimes difficult to show people what we really are and to have them appreciate us for it?
     
  2. This book will save your life…
    The Elegance of the Hedgehog has been described as "a toolbox one can look into to resolve life's problems," a "life-transforming read," and a "life-affirming book." Do you feel this is an accurate characterization of ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

While brimming with audacity and indignation, The Elegance of the Hedgehog is tempered by a smooth infusion of sophisticated humor and a boundless passion for art. This novel speaks not only of film, music, and literature, but also reflects on the more subtle and forgotten arts of relationship, perception, and understanding. This complex mixture results in a searing diatribe on social class divisions and demands that we call into question our own preconceptions and judgments. The concepts of art and discrimination cross cultural lines and Ms. Barbery's frustration with the world and its lack of passion is perhaps why this work translates so well. Both honest and artfully executed, The Elegance of the Hedgehog strikes a universal chord leaving the reader much wiser for the journey.   (Reviewed by Megan Shaffer).

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Media Reviews
Le Figaro (France)

Appearances can be deceptive: this is one of the book’s messages. The writing is succinct, unusual, light yet erudite. And the story approaches that of a fable, but without the puerile elements and with a little extra touch of impertinence.

Marie Claire (France)

Enthusiastically recommended for anyone who loves books that grow quietly and then blossom suddenly.

The Independent - Robert Hanks

Though Barbery adopts the hedgehog as her governing metaphor, the book is a hedgehog turned inside out – superficially warm and cuddly, but with some nasty barbs within. Renée worships Tolstoy, but there is no sign that either she or her creator has learnt complexity or humanity from him. The supporting characters are, by and large, drawn with barely inflected contempt.

Despite the name-checking of philosophers, composers and novelists, the mood is subtly anti-intellectual: people who seem clever are just showing off. The book flatters the reader, offering reassurance that untutored instinct is truer than the opinions of so-called experts.

The Telegraph - Beth Jones

The finale is pretty sickly stuff but then Barbery's entire tale is soaked in sentimentality. What is most irritating is that it steadfastly refuses to acknowledge itself as such - hiding under a mask of philosophical fuss. ... a cobbled-together framework of potted philosophies draped with the softest of sentimental messages. If it were a piece of furniture, it would be an Ikea bestseller: popular, but not likely to be passed down the generations.

The Guardian - Viv Groskop

Despite its cutesy air of chocolate-box Paris, The Elegance of the Hedgehog is, by the end, quite radical in its stand against French classism and hypocrisy. It's intriguing that her compatriots have bought into it so enthusiastically. Clever, informative and moving, it is essentially a crash course in philosophy interwoven with a platonic love story. Though it wanders in places, this is an admirable novel which deserves as wide a readership here as it had in France.

Library Journal - Sam Popowich

Barbery attempts to make the story appear more cutting-edge by introducing dizzying changes in typography, but the effect seems precious from the outset and quickly grow tiresome.

Publishers Weekly

Her simple plot and sudden denouement add up to a great deal more than the sum of their parts.

New York Times - Caryn James

Especially in the novel’s early stretch, Barbery, a professor of philosophy, seems too clever for her own good. ... Her narrators mirror each other so neatly, the pattern threatens to become more calculated than graceful. Her brief chapters, more essays than fiction, so carefully build in explanations for the literary and philosophical references that she seems to be assessing what a mass audience needs.

Kirkus Reviews

With its refined taste and political perspective, this is an elegant, light-spirited and very European adult fable.

The New Yorker - Alison Anderson

Barbery’s sly wit, which bestows lightness on the most ponderous cogitations, keeps her tale aloft.

The Washington Post - Michael Dirda

At one point Madame Michel asks herself, "What is the purpose of intelligence if it is not to serve others?" What indeed? Certainly, the intelligent Muriel Barbery has served readers well by giving us the gently satirical, exceptionally winning and inevitably bittersweet Elegance of the Hedgehog.

Reader Reviews
Elizabeth G.

It's the Camellias I Wonder About...
Never mind commas, does she know what a camellia is? "In the flower bed there are some pretty little red and white flowers, you planted them.." (pg290). (Busy Lizzies?) "I'd have planted them all over the place....They are camellias....   Read More

Emma @ Words And Peace

Why I loved the Elegance of the Hedgehog
For whatever reason, I’m losing my ability to read French books; their language sounds now usually dull and pompous to me. It is a strange phenomenon for someone who has devoured so many French books. As I couldn’t anyway find this one in French ...   Read More

Dave S

The Elegance of the Hedgehog
A strange title indeed, but what a gem of a book! The author's use of language to describe her characters and story was engaging. While Ms Barbery's background in philosophy comes through, the humor woven throughout balances things nicely and creates...   Read More

Jane a (Lakeport, Calif)

The Elegance of the Hedgehog
I can't remember when I enjoyed a story as much as I did this one; I read it twice! The author's style was, to me, enchanting; I love her use of the language itself....metaphors and similes, in particular. I found Renee's sense of humor, combined ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Author Muriel Barbery (who currently lives in Kyoto with her husband) reveals a passion for the arts and cultural practices of Japan as she incorporates references to Japanese poets, directors, films, and traditions into The Elegance of the Hedgehog.

The term wabi-sabi, in its simplest form, is the Japanese view of a simple aesthetic; less is more. Overall, it is a kind of quiet, mellow beauty that is uncluttered and alleviates the weight of the material. Originally two words, they have been paired over time to express harmony, grace, and simple beauty. One who is wabi-sabi has an understated appreciation of nature's beauty and finds peace in simplicity. Likewise, the term can be applied to styles of art, architecture,...

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