The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery


Barbery, Muriel. Anderson, Alison, tr. The Elegance of the Hedgehog. New York: Europa Editions Inc., 2009.

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

(Note: books are rated from one to five smiley faces, one being a book I didn’t like very much, and five being a book I loved.)

Was this one ever a surprise!  I know that several of my other book blogging friends had written about it, but I’d pretty much forgotten what they’d had to say, except that it was generally well-received. The only reason I’ve given it four smiley faces instead of five here is that I can’t decide which it should be, but since it got off to a very odd start for me, I’m erring on the side of giving it four. I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to get into it. Once in, however, I stayed in and could barely put it down.

At first, with all its philosophizing, it just seemed very, very French to me. I couldn’t tell if I thought it was pretentious or too precious and was bored to tears, or if I thought it was witty and clever and loved it. Initially, I didn’t find any of the characters particularly attractive, although I kind of identifed with the twelve-year-old Paloma who was smart and wise beyond her years, found life pretty pointless, and planned to set fire to her building and kill herself on her thirteenth birthday (I didn’t identify with that latter part, but I know what it’s like to be a teenager and to feel that everyone around you is living very superficial and empty lives). Wanting to know what was going to happen to her is what kept me reading in the beginning.

Soon enough, though, the book began to grow on me, as did the characters. It’s told in two voices, that of Paloma and that of the fifty-four-year-old concierge Renée, two people living in the same building but from very different backgrounds and social classes, both enamored of the Japanese. Once Kakuro, the wealthy Japanese tenant moved into the building, there was no longer any doubt in my mind: the book  became a clever, witty one that I loved. I liked what it had to say about beauty and age and love and the way we all judge each other. I liked the woman that Renée became by the end of the book. I liked the girl that Paloma became by the end of the book. And I liked the way those two lives intersected with each other and how Kakuro helped them get to know one another. I also found much of it to be very, very funny.

I’m not quite sure about the ending, though. It was definitely a shocker — I didn’t see it coming at. all. Was it a cop-out and totally unnecessary, or was it the only way to end the book beautifully? Maybe you can answer that question for me if you’ve read it. It doesn’t matter. I liked the fact that I was so surprised by it.

With all this indecision, what have I decided about this book? I’ve decided that I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that so challenged my normally decisive nature. How could I not love a book that did that? Perhaps it really deserves five smiley faces after all. What do you think?