Sunday, 13 January 2013

Review: The Elegance of the Hedgehog

The Elegance of the Hedgehog
Muriel Barbery
Original Language: French

'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.'

Can I just say 'wow'?! Is that an appropriate review? Perhaps not, but don't fret, I could go on and on about this book.

So, to business. I read this book as part of Curiosity Killed the Bookworm's 2013 Translation Challenge. I decided on this one to start off the challenge because I'd had it on my shelves for far too long. That, and it coincided nicely with my New Year's trip to Paris. I would like to thank Ellie for setting up this challenge and forcing me to pick up this amazing book from the unread and unloved pile. How dare I leave it there for so long?!

Seriously though, the quote from a Guardian review on the back cover swung the purchase and consequent reading of the novel for me: 'Resistance is futile...' That's pretty much the Trekkie vote right there*.

The novel is a snapshot of the lives of a group of people living at the apartments of 7, rue de Grenelle, seen from the point of view of Renee Michel (the concierge) and twelve-year-old Paloma Josse. Putting it simply, the owners of the apartments are shockingly upper class and are completely unaware of the intelligence of their concierge. The book kind of floats along in a contemplative fashion until one of the apartment owners dies and his apartment is purchased by Japanese businessman Kakuro Ozu. Together, Kakuro and Paloma slowly draw out Renee's character and allow her to accept her own intelligence regardless of her place in the social ladder.

I did find the novel hard going at times. It is very deep and philosophical and my brain tends to go to mush when I think too much about the whys and the hows of the world. But having said that, some bits were just truly lovely to read. Like this bit:

'It's as if those strains of music created a sort of interlude in time, something suspended, an elsewhere that had come to us, an always within a never.'

I love the language (I can only imagine how beautiful it'd be in French) and the dual narration. I love Renee's passion and Paloma's intelligence. I love how uplifting and hopeful it is. Most of all I love how the whole novel destroys the boundaries of age, sex, class and intelligence and proves how they are completely unnecessary in the world. That is pretty much my view of the world and it makes me feel quite hopeful seeing it at work in a novel.

'Moving' is such a cop-out word but my goodness, I was certainly moved. And the ending, oh the ending. Be warned: there were tears. A heartbreaking but totally necessary ending which pretty much answers the 'what is the meaning of life' question that seems to fizzle below the surface. I'm welling up again. Don't judge me, just read the book.

*If you were guessing why this blog is called Lit Nerd, there's your answer. I am a geek.



  1. Oooh, I've read a review of this somewhere else too, and you've made me definitely definitely want to read it now! You got me with the 'deep and philosophical' bit, cause maaaan I love that stuff (I did half a philosophy degree. It was pretty cool.)

    1. Deep thoughts give me an epic headache. All that meaning of life stuff...*shudder*. But definitely read it, it is so worth it. It is like the philosophical/literary version of a proper feelgood book.

  2. Philosophy in books is one thing that I can't stand (I don't honestly know why), so I think I should steer clear of this one! I love the title though :)

    1. I think it was the title that made me buy it! But maybe do steer clear if you hate philosophy in books...Muriel Barbery is a professor of philosophy so it gets real deep at times.

  3. I'm so happy your first challenge read was a wow book (I think that's a perfectly acceptabel review btw ;)).

    1. I've got my fingers crossed that all the ones that follow will be just as good

  4. It is rather challenging, but then you feel so good afterwards, don't you? Glad you enjoyed it. I found her first novel a bit less moving or interesting: La Gourmandise, but hey, debut novels and all that!

    1. It really does make you feel so good, almost inexplicably so. I'm hoping to get round to La Gourmandise eventually...


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