Review: The Elegance of the Hedgehog

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

The Elegance of the Hedgehog
By Muriel Barbery
September 2008

*No Spoilers*

The Short of It:

A curious look at life, love, philosophy, art and literature as seen through the eyes of a 54-year-old concierge and her 12-year-old tenant.

The Rest of It:

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a pleasant story with a colorful cast of characters. Renee is the concierge of 7, rue de Grenelle, a Parisian block of very expensive apartments. Her physical appearance is nothing remarkable and she prefers to remain somewhat invisible to the other tenants. She spends her days catering to the wants of others, while harboring an extreme love of the arts. This, she prefers to keep to herself. Afterall, no one would believe that a concierge would be capable of appreciating such niceties.

Paloma, is the twelve-year-old tenant. She is forced to live with her mediocre family and has come to the conclusion that living such a life would be pure torture, so she plans to commit suicide when she turns thirteen.

The two, living under the same roof, share their feelings through alternating, essay-like chapters. When a new tenant by the name of Kakuro Ozu moves in, it becomes apparent to all three, that they each possess gifts that may not be apparent to the average eye.

The first half of this book was a bit slow for me. I didn’t love any of the characters and the essay-like chapters took a bit of time to get used to. Additionally, the day-to-day activities of the other tenants seemed a bit…well…boring. However, when Kakuro Ozu moves in, the pace picked up quite a bit and my interest in the story returned. Ozu is such an interesting character. Educated, a real gentleman and as sharp as they come. He enters the scene and quickly realizes who he has in front of him. I found his character to be quite enjoyable.

Although I was often amused by the characters themselves, I didn’t care for the story so much. The ending completely blindsided me and made me angry with the author. I remember asking myself, “Now, why did she do that???”  So yes, I enjoyed it to a degree and thought it a pleasant read overall but the ending killed it for me. If you enjoy books with an “upstairs/downstairs” quality, then you will find this book charming as there are lots of little details to absorb and ponder.

My book club discussed this last week, but I was not able to make the meeting. I heard from some of the other members that there wasn’t much to discuss and that the discussion only lasted twenty minutes or so. If you choose this for your book club, you might want to pair it with one of the film or book references noted in the novel.

Source: Purchased

29 thoughts on “Review: The Elegance of the Hedgehog”

  1. I never fell in love with this book either. Didn’t like Renee much. But I did think it would make a good book club choice, if one were looking for books to coordinate with food… all those great tea and pastry meet-ups. Well, of course, we would have to substitute lattes…. :–)

    1. Oh, when Ozu cooked that Japanese meal for Renee I was drooling. All the mentions of sweets too. Yes, I suppose you could pair it with some food and make the club discussion a bit more interesting. Heck! Throw some sake in there too and you’ve got a party!

  2. I didn’t live this one. I liked some parts and I wondered if some things were just lost in translation, but it’s one of those that I think was over-hyped.

    1. I agree, I’d like to see the movie to see how it comes across. In the movie, Renee is much younger which I’m not sure would work.

  3. This is exactly why I have yet to read this book. Many many reviews, saying they just couldn’t get into it. Then a friend of my mom’s told me that this book SET THE STANDARD for all of their future book club reads. What the hell? I don’t think I’m going to risk it.

    1. Really? Set the standard? Well, I know some book clubs just want pleasant, easy reads. This book could be that. I, for one, prefer a book with a bit more meat on its bones. If you look at critical reviews of it, they don’t really say too much about it,except that it was “all the rage” when it came out. As one of the others said, perhaps a bit was lost in the translation.

    1. I knew of the other book but I wasn’t aware that it was a pre-quel. I thought it came after Elegance. Yes, the food aspect was great, as were the art references. I looked up all the paintings she referenced.

  4. Ti, I loved this book, except for the end. Like you, I was blindsided by it. I was so upset with the end, too! I couldn’t believe it! I remember being really angry about it, because I felt like it was unnecessary. It just seemed so unfair, after everything that had happened to have that happen to Renee. I wanted her to be happy (which she was starting to finally be). UGH! The end was upsetting, but the entire book was just so good – gave me a lot of food for thought.

    1. I don’t know about you, but I kept picturing it as a movie and kept seeing Susan Boyle (the singer) as Renee. I could not escape the vision.

      1. Ti, that is a good one. I can totally see what you mean – Boyle would make a great Renee. Now you have me thinking about who would be good to play Paloma and Ozu. Hmmm.

  5. We’ve tossed this around at book club, but it never seems to get chosen (probably because nobody has actually read it). Anyway, my daughter had it assigned in French for a class and also bought the English version to refer to. Now that it’s in the house, I’ll probably give it a try…

  6. I didn’t care for this book either. A French friend of mine told me she had read it in both French and English. The problem seems to be with the translation. Still it did not rock my boat.

  7. I struggled with all of the philosophy (my least favorite class in college). And the ending was a huge surprise. So in the end, while I didn’t love it, I didn’t hate it, either.

  8. I too was not a big fan of this book–and after all he hype was sorely disappointed. I felt like I was drowning in all the philosophy –really felt the story was mired down in it–and once again, agree, maybe it was the translation? I never came to like the characters–and truly despised Paloma’s sister–I mean TRULY despised her—that being said, she was the one character who actually evoked any emotion in me! 🙂
    The ending? Hated it too. Blah–not in a hurry to read anything else by this author. Glad to see I wasn’t alone….

  9. This felt like two different books to me–I had to force myself through that first part but I did really grow to love the characters in the second half.

  10. haven’t read this one and don’t think it’s really my cup of tea. i’m always interested in hearing about your bookclub, though! no matter how much i’ve searched, i can’t find one in my area. instead, i’ll live vicariously through yours!

  11. This is one of my all time favorite books. I agree with you the ending is a bit of a surprise, but I think it only reinforces the philosophical view the author is conveying. That too has altered the perspective of Paloma. A worthwhile discovery is that the book led me to the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu. Since reading it, I’ve watched more than half a dozen of his films and totally enjoyed them.

  12. I had a hard time getting into this book as well, but loved it by the end. I did love the ending…so unexpected and a risky move by the author knowing that many people were not going to like it. I agree with the commenter that said it reinforces the philosophical view the author is conveying.

    1. Of course, you’re right. The philosophical aspect was emphasized with that ending. I think it just hit me hard because I just didn’t expect it at all.

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