Reviewed: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

hedgehogsFirst, just in case you’re wondering, this is not a book that sheds any light on care and keeping of hedgehogs. If you’ve been long harboring a desire to keep a hedgehog as a pet and pick this book up for insight, you’ll be very surprised in the first few pages. Fair warning.

First, a brief summary to bring you up to speed, courtesy of

Renee is the concierge of a grand Parisian apartment building, home to members of the great and the good. Over the years she has maintained her carefully constructed persona as someone reliable but totally uncultivated, in keeping, she feels, with society’s expectations of what a concierge should be. But beneath this facade lies the real Renee: passionate about culture and the arts, and more knowledgeable in many ways than her employers with their outwardly successful but emotionally void lives. Down in her lodge, apart from weekly visits by her one friend Manuela, Renee lives resigned to her lonely lot with only her cat for company.

Meanwhile, several floors up, twelve-year-old Paloma Josse is determined to avoid the pampered and vacuous future laid out for her, and decides to end her life on her thirteenth birthday. But unknown to them both, the sudden death of one of their privileged neighbors will dramatically alter their lives forever.

The book’s New York Times bestseller moniker is deservedly earned. The writing is beautiful and the concept of the book is charming. Originally the book was written in French, but let’s not kid ourselves, I read the English translation. A little honor where honor is due: The Elegance of the Hedgehog has been praised by The Washington PostLos Angeles Times, The New York TimesChicago Sun-TimesPublishers Weekly and Elle (Italy), to name a few.

I’ll be honest, I found the book fairly dense. The cadence of the writing was hard to enjoy, even though the chapters were all short. To be fair, the accounts of Renee and Paloma’s lives are actually quite interesting, if difficult to relate to. However, in between snippets of the story we as readers are “treated” to long soliloquies about their thoughts on philosophy (who cares about phenomenology?) and the mundane (how much can one say about a rugby player?) for pages and pages. At times I thought, “This writing is really beautiful.” But most of the time, I found myself so tangled up in verbiage that I could not have recounted what was happening for any amount of money.

The back cover copy makes it sound as though the book is a tale of an older concierge and the younger charge’s friendship. In reality, very little of that happens until the last several pages. The last 60 pages or so did keep me riveted but I wouldn’t have made it that far without the desire to keep myself from bringing shame to my family’s name by flunking out of book club.

On a positive note, because so much of the book is the rambling thoughts of these two articulate characters, The Elegance of the Hedgehog certainly is quotable. I made notations of words and phrases that stuck out to me as delicate thoughts that I’d like to remember. Here are a few of them:

The title phrase:

From Paloma’s POV: “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.”

Paloma on grammar:

“Personally, I think that grammar is a way to attain beauty. When you speak, or read, or write, you can tell if you’ve said or written a fine sentence…But when you are applying the rules of grammar skillfully, you ascend to another level of the beauty of language.”

“And on the way home I thought: pity the poor in spirit who know neither the enchantment nor the beauty of language.”

Renee on reading:

“I have read so many books…and yet, like most autodidacts, I am never quite sure of what I have gained from them. There are days when I feel I have been able to grasp all there is to know in one single gaze, as if invisible branches suddenly spring out of nowhere, wearing together all the disparate strands of my reading–and then suddenly the meaning escapes, the essence evaporates, and no matter how often I reread the same lines, they seem to flee ever further with each subsequent reading, and I see myself as some mad old fool who thinks her stomach is full because she’s been attentively reading the menu.”

Bottom Line: If you’re a person who likes a literary read and your bookshelves already have your fair share of translated, acclaimed works of fiction you’ll appreciate the refined turns of phrase. However, if you feel as though life is too short to read discourses on phenomenology and poetic musings on rugby players, better to pass on this book altogether.