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The Elegance of the Hedgehog - Muriel Barbery

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Author: Muriel Barbery / Format: Paperback / Date of publication: 21 February 2009 / Genre: Modern & Contemporary Fiction / Publisher: Gallic Books / Title: The Elegance of the Hedgehog / ISBN 13: 9781906040185 / ISBN 10: 1906040185

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    4 Reviews
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      25.05.2012 12:47
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      A great story almost sunk by trying too hard to impress with its intellectual credentials

      Are Hedgehogs elegant? I'm not convinced. Cute for sure, riddled with fleas, undoubtedly and pretty handy for getting rid of slugs in your garden but would they be the first animal you'd think of as an archetype of 'elegance'? I suspect not. But if you're as prone as I am to grabbing a book on the basis of a silly title, then you've probably already got 'The Elegance of the Hedgehog' by Muriel Barbery on your bookshelf along with 'A History of Tractors in Ukrainian' and 'The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake'. I'm a sucker for a provocative title.

      The Elegance of the Hedgehog has apparently - if the cover of my book is to believed - sold 2.5 million copies around the world. This is all the more remarkable for two reasons - firstly it was originally written in French which doesn't tend to be the most successful tactic for topping the best seller lists and secondly it's full of pretentiously self-conscious philosophical blah blah blah. If you can see past the author's attempt to indoctrinate her readers with a bit of whatever the opposite of 'dumbing down' might be called ('wising up' maybe), then surprisingly there's a darned good read in here. It has all the hallmarks of the type of book much loved by 'bookclubs' - which is surely enough to put a lot of people off buying it.

      The Elegance of the Hedgehog is set in Paris, in an exclusive apartment block of lavish luxury homes inhabited by wealthy and largely self-satisfied folk. Keeping things ticking over in 7, rue de Grenelle is Renee, the widowed middle-aged concierge. She's a frumpy little woman who aspires through her dress, behaviour and existence to achieve a state of near total invisibility. She has no desire to draw attention to herself or to anything she does or says and beneath her dowdy and unassuming exterior lurks a secret life - Renee is a closet intellectual. Despite leaving school at an early age and growing up dirt-poor she has taught herself about art, literature, music and cinema, cultivating a taste so exquisite that she's terrified that if she shows her 'true' self she will lose her job and with it her secure and self indulgent little life. Her brain repeatedly over-rules her mouth, clutching back the words that she fears might give her away.

      Upstairs in one of the flats lives another closet intellectual - twelve year old Paloma. It's probably no exaggeration to say that 12-year old girls are given to over-indulgence in self-examination and Paloma spends a lot of time hiding from her family, developing what she calls 'Profound thoughts' and despairing about the prospect of turning out like her air-head sister or her pretentious mother. She vows to kill herself on her 13th birthday and to probably set light to her family's apartment just before her suicide. In the mean time she has six months or so to capture her profound thoughts in writing.

      These two lonely souls might have remained disconnected but for the unfortunate death of one of the apartment owners and the subsequent purchase of his property by a Japanese gentleman called Kakuro Ozo, a man for whom the Parisian snobbery of his neighbours is as alien to him as his oriental origins are to them. As an outsider in their midst, Ozo can work away at the barriers that both Renee and Paloma have put in place. He spots in Renee a fellow lover of Tolstoy, a lady of refinement that others around her cannot see and which she herself hides. Can he break down the walls that Renee has built around herself? Can he persuade her to value who she is and what she knows? And can he give Renee and Paloma a companionship that both need and to which neither admits?

      This book is a very odd mix of styles and sometimes quite disparate elements. Barbery is by training a philosophy teacher and at times I felt very resistant to being 'taught' and I skipped the passages where Renee indulges in her tendency to 'go off on one' about something arty or philosophical. The book is delivered in different voices - alternating the story told by Renee and that told by Paloma. Paloma splits her contributions between her 'profound thoughts' which seem unintentionally quite amusing and her observational pieces about life in her family. Renee delivers philosophical passages and 'story' chapters in which things actually happen. If I wanted to read philosophy I wouldn't go looking for it in a novel so I skipped a lot of the more rambling passages, eager to get to the story.

      I enjoyed the slow gentle 'flowering' of Renee like one of the camellias she tends in the garden. I liked seeing the butterfly preparing to shake out of the chrysalis. I can't honestly say I found the transformation very believable, but I was prepared to suspend my disbelief. I enjoyed the snobby apartment dwellers and their prejudices, tried hard not to look too closely at the prejudices of Renee and Paloma, and willed myself to just go along with the story. I loved the moment when Renee realises that Simone Pallieres, one of the posh ladies upstairs, has destroyed a sentence by the misuse of a comma in the sentence "Would you be so kind as, to sign for the packages".

      The ending when it arrives is a shocker - I can say no more than that. I was in the bath when I got to the end and I nearly dropped the book, I was so surprised. I certainly hadn't seen it coming or predicted its consequence. But I finished the final pages and put the book down with a lump in my throat, wondering if anyone could make a decent film out of the lovely little story that has to fight its way out through all the pretentious long words and airs and graces. Would it be possible to capture this story without the written word on the page? I'm not sure, but based on my ability to ignore the 'boring bits' and get on with the story, I suspect it would be.

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        20.06.2010 23:24
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        Wouldn't read it again

        The Elegance of the Hedgehog was published in 2009, having been translated from its original French. I came across it in Waterstones where it was part of their 3 for 2 offer, the cover boasted that it had sold 2.5 million copies, been serialised on Radio 4 and received multiple favourable reviews and so I decided to give it a try.

        The story is told from what initially seem like two very different points of view - Renee is the concierge of an apartment block in Paris which is home to the wealthy and influential . Very few of the inhabitants pay her any attention other than when they need her services which suits Renee for although she appears to be a typical uncultured concierge she is in fact formidably intelligent with interests in literature, music, philosophy and art. Paloma is 12 and lives on the 5th floor of the building. She is determined not to become another member of the bourgeois elite like her parents and older sister whom she despises and so has decided that on the day of her thirteenth birthday she will commit suicide and set fire to the family's apartment. Before she dies she endeavours to leave behind a journal with her thoughts on life - this tells her part of the story which helps to easily differentiate her chapters from those of Renee.

        Of course this would be a fairly dull novel if they both succeeded in their objectives without any interference and both characters experience life altering events when one of their neighbours dies and his apartment is sold. The new inhabitant is a Japanese gentleman who is quite unlike anybody the building's residents have ever encountered. He realises that both characters have more to offer beneath their seemingly unfriendly exterior and encourages them to interact with the world and people around them.

        The author Muriel Barbary is a lecturer in Philosophy and this is quite evident in her writing style - some of the passages are quite tough to read - lasting several pages on the way someone might move a particular way or the beauty of art - fine for a text book, not so much for light holiday reading. More interesting are the interactions between Renee and her only friend Manuela - who provides an interesting down to earth counter point to Renee's more lofty ideas and Paloma's descriptions of her family and neighbours.

        Unfortunately I found both the main characters quite unsympathetic - even considering she is 12 Paloma is incredibly self centred and her whining really does get annoying - she is completely unable to appreciate how many opportunities she has available to her. Renee's backstory gives some insight into the reasons for her attitude but she is still incredibly pretentious and seems to enjoy looking down on her employers as much as she berates them for looking down on her! The smaller characters are created with varying degrees of success - Kakuro Ozu is incredibly charming and funny and his great niece provides some light moments in amongst the philosophising. Others are one dimensional and add little to the story - Paloma's sister Colombe appears to be there simply for her to despise.

        This novel didn't grip me and I am unlikely to read it again, there were too many dense chapters considering the meaning of life and the beauty of art which distracted from the story and felt like a chore to read. There are some funny moments and an unforeseen twist in the tale which meant that reading it wasn't a complete waste of time but I am hesitant to recommend it.

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          04.11.2009 14:26
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          A profound and moving story set in Paris, France

          The Elegance of the Hedgehog is one of the most endearing books of all time. It takes place in Paris, France at 7 Rue de Grenelle, a luxury apartment building. The story unfolds through the alternating narration of two characters; Renne Michel, a 54 year old concierge and Paloma Josse a 12 year old girl on the brink of suicide.
          The organization of the story is one of confessional between these two characters, Renee admitting to the reader that though she may appear to be an ordinary looking concierge she is in fact an autodidact with interests in Tolstoy and fine food. Paloma on the other hand comes from a high class family with high expectations for her to maintain the high level of her family's status.
          Paloma has often confessed to a curious fascination with Renee and when a new, cultured, Japenese tennant moves into the building he becomes the glue that will bind them all together.
          Without giving too much of the story away, Elegance in the end is the story of friendship and hypocrisy woven together with humour and humility. I highly recommend this book to anyone who likes a good story. It is well written and I can honestly say that when I finished reading it, I immidiately read it again!

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            12.07.2009 18:20
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            An enjoyable read

            I picked up this book in Waterstones a couple of months ago. I had chosen two other books in their 3 for 2 section, and was browsing for another one when this title caught my eye. Of course I had to pick it up and read the blurb on the back, and luckily, in addition to the fantastic title, it sounded like an interesting read.

            The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery tells the story of Renee, a concierge in a fancy Parisian apartment block, and Paloma, a 12 year old girl who lives in that apartment block. On the surface, Renee appears to be a typical concierge, who is simple, uncultured and eats bland and funny smelling food. However, she is very intelligent, much more so than most of the inhabitants, but hides it as a concierge should not be cleverer than her rich employers. Paloma is also incredibly intelligent, but, in order to avoid falling into bourgeois stereotypes, has decided to kill herself and burn down her family's apartment. However everything changes when one of their neighbours dies and someone new moves into the building...

            The story is told in two first person narratives, those of Renee and Paloma. Renee's story is presented as a normal first person narrative, however Paloma's takes the form of a kind of journal she is keeping before her planned suicide. This makes it easy to distinguish between the two, something which can be tricky in novels with more than one narrator.

            The Elegance of the Hedgehog felt like a rather indulgent read. Not in the sense that it was a little trashy, or the kind of book that I'd want to curl up on the sofa with on a Sunday afternoon, but because it was self-consciously aware of its own intellect. Maybe that sounds a little odd; I should explain. The two protagonists are very intelligent, and this is an important part of the novel and their characters. Therefore, it's natural that there are a lot of references to literature, philosophy, art, psychology and so on, and this, alongside the characters narration, gives the feeling of reading something very intelligent, when in fact the novel itself isn't necessarily so - but its subjects are.

            The story is well told, and seems to move along at a leisurely pace. I think this is quite deceptive, as plenty happens in the novel, but it never feels rushed and always seems to be quite relaxed. There is time in the narrative for both Renee and Paloma to reflect on past events, on books they are reading, on the other people in the building. I found myself liking both characters, and sympathising with them over what they have to put up with in life. I did find Renee a little frustrating at times as she continued to hide her intelligence.

            I thoroughly enjoyed reading this, although it took me a few chapters to get properly into it. Once I was, I read it quite quickly and was sad to reach the end. Obviously I won't reveal the plot, but there are several unexpected events, unexpected because as I say, the novel has a deceptively relaxed and leisurely feel to it.

            I would recommend reading this. Don't be put off by what I've said about the characters and their intelligence, it's certainly not a difficult book to read, and is a fascinating story which is well written. I'm trying to think of another author or novel to compare it to, but in all honesty I can't - which in itself is a recommendation, as it is different to the norm.

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