Review: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
Monday, December 16, 2013
Renée is the concierge of a very upscale Parisian apartment building. To the families who reside there, she is the very embodiment of all that a concierge should be: she's overweight, she eats smelly food, watches tv all day, and has a spoiled cat. Most importantly, she doesn't have any thoughts about anything except perhaps her immediate duties and what she's cooking for dinner that night. Inwardly, she is a brilliant woman, a reader and thinker who stays in her position because it gives her time to read all the books she wants, exposing herself to different schools of philosophical thought. She also feels that being concierge is her place in the world and she should stay in it.
Young Paloma lives with her wealthy family in Renée's building. Paloma has decided that she is going to commit suicide and burn down her apartment when she turns thirteen next summer. She doesn't feel particularly suicidal but she's looked around at all the adults around her and realized that they're living a lie; they tell children they can grow up to be whatever they want and do whatever they want, but all she sees are adults who look trapped in lives that make them miserable. She's decided to get out of the rat race early.
I hesitated over this book for a long time. I'd somewhere picked up the idea that it involves a lot of Philosophy, which I read as Big, Boring Thoughts That Have No Practical Application to Anyone's Life. Is that bad? Probably. But I came across it in Will Schwalbe's memoir, The End of Your Life Book Club and it piqued my interest. When I needed a short book to help me finish up my own Books in Translation challenge this year, I finally got brave and gave this one a try.
I didn't love it but I definitely enjoyed it. There were philosophical sections that I had to skim as my eyes glazed over, but way less than I had feared. Even in those, I could pull out a few ideas that I really liked. I can't quote any of them, but I liked them.
I identified with Renée to a certain extent. She has almost a pathological need to keep up her crusty concierge appearance, which I did not relate to, but in reserving her true self for her close friends and family? That I get. Her life slowly changes through the book and I was happy to see it happening because I liked her a lot. She's terrified but she goes with it. We eventually learn why she has lived her life the way she has and it broke my heart. I was not at all happy with the ending of the book, but I can see why it had to happen that way.
I liked Paloma too but I couldn't help feeling like she just needed to get out of her own head a little more. Easy for me to say, I know. She just loved wallowing in Big Ideas and looking down on her family (who were pretty awful, at least from her point of view). She's super-intelligent but she needed some kid time. Unfortunately, most of the kids her age are out shopping or listening to music or doing drugs or other things that she has no interest in, so that leaves her with herself for company and too much time in her own head.
The translation by Alison Anderson seemed to be very well done.
If you've been hesitating to read this one, go ahead and give it a try. There is some philosophy but I mostly saw it as a story of two lonely people slowly changing their lives. And that's a story I enjoyed.
Read an excerpt.
Buy The Elegance of the Hedgehog at
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