The Elegance of the Hedgehog – Muriel Barbery


Back to books today! I’m focussing on one of my summer reads which I really enjoyed: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. 

I bought this book for three reasons; the cover is very pretty, the title intrigued me immensely and the fact that it is set in Paris. It turned out to be a great little find. I would definitely recommend it. The novel is about facing life head on, rather than living behind masks and walls we make for ourselves, which are meant for keeping others out. It is a lesson in showing how not only do we deceive others, but we also deceive ourselves. 


What’s it all about? 

The narration is split in this novel between the two main characters: Renee and Paloma. Renee Michel is a concierge who believes that every concierge is perceived to be beneath others and lacking the intelligence of those they work for. It is because of this that Renee tries to hide the fact that she spends her days revelling in the works of Marx and Tolstoy. This was easier to do when her husband was alive, she could hide behind his interests, but since his death her lack of interest in television and what was current was harder to hide. However, Renee has found that the wealthy prefer to ignore what is right under their noses, rather choosing to believe in what they already perceive to be true. This is how Renee has managed to hide under their radar for more an twenty years.

“I have no children, I do not watch television, and I do not believe in God — all paths taken by mortals to make their lives easier. Children help us to defer the painful task of confronting ourselves, and grandchildren take over from them. Television distracts us from the onerous necessity of finding projects to construct in the vacuity of our frivolous lives: by beguiling our eyes, television releases our mind from the great work of making meaning. Finally, God appeases our animal fears and the unbearable prospect that someday all our pleasures will cease.”

In the building where renew works, there is a highly intelligent twelve year old girl called Paloma Josse. She has decided to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday. As the daughter of a diplomat and his bored wife, she feels as though no one ever sees the real her. She hides her intelligence and her true thoughts from others. Paloma has decided that it is much easier to kill herself rather than continue to fight for some kind of recognition from her parents, sister and peers. Her death will be a fitting one; by setting fire to her parents’ apartment in an attempt to force her family to see beyond their wealth and status. 

“We don’t recognize each other because other people have become our permanent mirrors. If we actually realized this, if we were able to become aware of the fact that we are only ever looking at ourselves in the other person, that we are alone in the wilderness, we would go crazy.”

After a death in the building, the widow decides to sell the apartment. Disliking change and ever worrying about what or whom shall move into he apartment, the other residents speculate. The catalyst for this being that there hasn’t been a new tenant in the building in more than two decades. For Renee, her excitement is hidden more underneath. Besides, it is not her job to gossip or get excited about such goings on. 

“In our world, that’s the way you live your grown-up life: you must constantly rebuild your identity as an adult, the way it’s been put together is wobbly, ephemeral, and fragile, it cloaks despair and, when you’re alone in front of the mirror, it tells you the lies you need to believe.”

Kauri Ozu, the new tenant, is a charming and polite man. He is the one man that will bring great change to Renee and Paloma’s lives. During their introduction, Renee makes an offhand comment that draws Kakuro’s attention to her love of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. This sparks curiosity and intrigue in Kakuro. He invites Renee to dinner in his apartment once he has settled. As well as this, Kakuro becomes friends with Paloma’s after he learns she is studying Japanese at school. The friendship between the three begins to grow. 

Over time, the friendship between Renee and Kakuro blossoms. Renee is overwhelmingly relived to have a friend with whom she can be herself, who understands her and shares her own interests. They have great discussions about literature, music (brought on by borrowing his bathroom!), art and philosophy. Yet, there is a flaw. Renee struggles with reconciling herself with this relationship as her past has taught her that the social classes cannot mix without some form of conflict. Therefore, when Kakuro invites Renee to dinner to celebrate his birthday, she says no. Kakuro does manage to persuade her eventually and thus their relationship blooms. 

“The peace of mind one experiences on one’s own, one’s certainty of self in the serenity of solitude, are nothing in comparison to the release and openness and fluency one shares with another, in close companionship.”

Paloma, with her own struggles, asks Renee if she could visit her apartment to escape the chaos of her own home. Paloma’s becomes a regular visitor and forces Renee to share her reasons for turning down the dinner invitation of Kakuro. It is here that we as a reader are allowed a little insight into the past which seems to haunt Renee so. She tells the story of how her sister died after being used and deserted by a rich man. Little does Renee know, Paloma takes this information to Kakuro. 

Kakuro, ever the gentleman, comes (to Renee’s surprise) to her apartment to explain how he has no desire to use and desert her. After all, Renee is not her sister. It is at this point, that Renee looks towards the future, something she is yet to do in this novel. Before we can get excited, a cruel twist of fate results in Renee getting hit by a truck. Sadly, she dies. Paloma struggles with grief and promises not to see her plans of her own death on her birthday, rather she wants to learn from Renee in order to have a happy and fulfilling life. 

“I find this a fascinating phenomenon: the ability we have to manipulate ourselves so that the foundation of our beliefs is never shaken.”

Overall

I really enjoyed this book. It challenges beliefs about class systems and relationships. It shows that we all hide something through fear or frustration, yet there is always someone who can relate to you. People are naturally brought together by comment interests. Give this book a try, you may just love it! 

Big love xx

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6 Comments

Filed under Book review

6 responses to “The Elegance of the Hedgehog – Muriel Barbery

  1. Hi Books and Bakes! I have this on my shelf. I tried to read it a few years ago – it was passed around in my family and highly recommended. For some reason I could not concentrate and I put it down. Seeing your review makes me want to try again!

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  2. Great and detailed review! 🙂

    Like

  3. What an interesting review and book! 🙂 I’m definitely adding this novel to my pleasure reading list.

    Like

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