The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

I almost can’t believe I’ve finished this book. It’s incredible, but it’s so heavy that even within pages of the end I didn’t really believe it. The first time I tried to read it, I didn’t get in very far, because it hits you very hard very quickly, thick with deep philosophical thoughts, contemplations on life, culture, and art, and a rather obscure vocabulary.

This book takes place from the perspective of two different characters living in a high-class hotel in Paris. One woman is Renee, the concierge at 7, Rue de Grenelle, an unattractive, uninteresting woman who is practiced in the art of hiding her true identity. For Renee is actually a very impressive autodidact, smarter than all of the rich, superior families she serves. But she’s not bitter- this is actually the way she likes it.

The other character is Paloma, a twelve year-old girl who lives with her family at 7, Rue de Grenelle, strikingly similar to Renee. Like the concierge, she is abnormally clever and entirely scornful of just about every human being she’s ever met. She is clever, and she has gathered from watching adults that there is only one end in sight, what she deems “the goldfish bowl,” a place of stagnation. Seeing no point in living just to make it to the goldfish bowl, she determines to kill herself on her thirteenth birthday (as she is twelve at the time) and set fire to the apartment.

So what you have here is two characters who have virtually nothing to do but contemplate, and yet don’t particularly wish to use their vast intelligence for anything, and they certainly don’t want to make it public. Both Renee and Paloma, each for their own reasons, go to great lengths to hide their incredible brains.

So my mental block for roughly the first half of the book was: exactly what is the point of them having this gift if they’re not doing anything with it? I tried to work myself out of this because, as Scott Adams once said, when someone far more brilliant than us does something we don’t understand, who are we to question them? Besides, it does explain why they wish to keep hidden, they just don’t seem like very legitimate reasons to me.

Again, I’m not completely sure what to say about this book, because all of the moments that really took my breath away happened in the second half. In fact, I would say the entire final quarter of the book was stunning in every way- it was written fantastically (an especially impressive feat since it was translated from French), with fantastic explanations and emotions. There was a giant amount of character growth in this part of the book, and it was nearly explosive- my heart aches for Paloma and Renee.

Then there were the little parts of the book that I enjoyed for personal reasons- there is an entire section where Renee talks about her disgust when people make base mistakes in grammar, simple things such as misplaced commas and mistaking ‘bring’ for ‘take,’ which many people would ignore but caused her to actively flinch. All I could think of as I was reading this was how badly I tear apart peoples’ grammar mistakes when I’m editing papers- it all feels very natural to me (to which I attribute the fact that I’ve been reading so much for so long) and I’m quite ruthless when it comes to people who don’t understand it quite as well.

But the truly impressive thing about these passages was that this book was a translation- and they had a giant discussion on the importance of proper grammar, something which is very specific to language. And yet nothing was lost in the context of the discussion, which means that they had to find a perfectly equivalent grammatical error to throw into the English version of the novel that would ring just as true as in the original French. I loved it.

I will certainly recommend this book- it was a very enjoyable read, despite the fact that some of the more deeply philosophical portions could become very difficult to understand, but it carries a fantastic lesson. The ending is brilliant, unforeseen, and it hits you right where it should.

Published in: on December 29, 2010 at 12:59 am  Comments (7)  
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7 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Sounds good… most of the Strugatsky books are like that for me. It takes me a while to get into them but the second half of the book usually blows my mind. And their philosophical discussions are insane too.
    I honestly think you should give Hard to be a God another try. Or maybe go for Roadside Picnic instead… that one is rather easy to follow and incredibly powerful at the end.
    But no matter, you’re on Exodus and Zenith soon. If you think the language in those books is a little simple for you please try to work through them… I read the first one when I was 12 and loved it and the second I caught by accident on the “newly released” bookshelf in town when I was maybe 16/17.
    I can’t wait to hear what you think of them.

    • I feel like I should indulge one of Emma’s recommendations next (after Exodus and Zenith), but I’ll put Hard to be a God on the rec list, and I might give it another shot in the future. I’ll put The Host there, too. I promise you, that is where I go when my pile gets short enough. I’m just slowly making my way through it.

  2. Nice review.

    A great book. Truly. Even though I disagree with some of Renee’s philosophies, the writing is so good that reading them is a joy.

    I question you about finding their motives “legitimate.” Legitimate implies that they fit with some outer criteria, or they matched what “you” would do, or “a normal person.” I think it made complete sense for the characters. It matched their temperaments, specifically their fears, perfectly. And, be honest, haven’t there been times when you’ve not enjoyed the attention that being smart has gotten you?

    Also, you write “it was a very enjoyable read, despite the fact that some of the more deeply philosophical portions could become very difficult to understand.” I enjoyed it especially because the book paid off the work put into it. The depth of the material has made it meaningful for multiple readings, even though — or because — you have to work for it.

    Still, the fact that you can have this “deep stuff” mixed in with a great comic plot and slapstick like the toilet scene and characters who you love … it’s a great book.

    I don’t know why I’m putting off reading her other one.

    • Also, something just occurred to me. What you said about the translation … a lot of this book is about class differences. In France, class is a different thing from what it is in the United States. I’m not saying the US is “classless” — it’s not — but we think of class in a very different way. I wonder if that has had on impact on our take of the book.

    • That’s exactly what I meant by trying not to think that way- it worked for them, and it defined their characters, but it wasn’t the way a normal person would do it. And it took a little bit of effort for me to get over that.

      And the book was definitely rewarding- I felt very good about finishing it, especially because I hadn’t been able to the first time- but at those parts where you had to reread three or four times and go very slowly, I found it a little tedious. I’m not saying the entire book should be simplified for your average highschooler, but it was usually after chapters like that that I would find myself having to take a break and do something else.

  3. […] (by me, at least) Muriel Barbery, who wrote another book I’ve already reviewed on this site- The Elegance of the Hedgehog. This book is about a dying food critic, Pierre Arthens, who lives in the Rue de Grenelle- the same […]

  4. […] Oh, and I found this interesting: she started off her year of reading- the very first day- with The Elegance of the Hedgehog. And I was just like, “Hey, I read that!” I was pleased. She followed up shortly with a […]

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