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The Elegance of the Hedgehog

by

The Elegance of the Hedgehog Cover

 

Staff Pick

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a study in the dichotomy of the hidden inner self versus outer perceptions. Paloma and René are each careful to build a facade that hides their true nature from the world. Until a new tenant moves into their building, this plan has worked well — but no longer. What happens when you meet someone who can see who you really are? Littered with dozens of literary, art, and music references, this quiet novel is a treat for lovers of culture. Beautifully written, poignant, and so very bittersweet.
Recommended by Dianah, Powells.com

Review-A-Day

"Renee and Paloma are brought together by their mutual fascination with the building's new tenant, Kakuro Ozu, who sees through their carefully constructed identities — which he does simply by refusing to believe that a concierge and a child are second-class citizens. Between the three of them, their appreciation for the whole of art — literature, painting, film, even fine food — allows them to transcend the walls of class, race, age, and gender." Sheila Ashdown, Powells.com (read the entire Powells.com review)

Synopses & Reviews

Publisher Comments:

The enthralling international bestseller.

We are in the center of Paris, in an elegant apartment building inhabited by bourgeois families. Renée, the concierge, is witness to the lavish but vacuous lives of her numerous employers. Outwardly she conforms to every stereotype of the concierge: fat, cantankerous, addicted to television. Yet, unbeknownst to her employers, Renée is a cultured autodidact who adores art, philosophy, music, and Japanese culture. With humor and intelligence she scrutinizes the lives of the building's tenants, who for their part are barely aware of her existence.

Then there's Paloma, a 12-year-old genius. She is the daughter of a tedious parliamentarian, a talented and startlingly lucid child who has decided to end her life on the 16th of June, her thirteenth birthday. Until then she will continue behaving as everyone expects her to behave: a mediocre pre-teen high on adolescent subculture, a good but not an outstanding student, an obedient if obstinate daughter.

Paloma and Renée hide both their true talents and their finest qualities from a world they suspect cannot or will not appreciate them. They discover their kindred souls when a wealthy Japanese man named Ozu arrives in the building. Only he is able to gain Paloma's trust and to see through Renée's timeworn disguise to the secret that haunts her. This is a moving, funny, triumphant novel that exalts the quiet victories of the inconspicuous among us.

Review:

"This dark but redemptive novel, an international bestseller, marks the debut in English of Normandy philosophy professor Barbery. Renee Michel, 54 and widowed, is the stolid concierge in an elegant Paris hotel particulier. Though 'short, ugly, and plump,' Renee has, as she says, 'always been poor,' but she has a secret: she's a ferocious autodidact who's better versed in literature and the arts than any of the building's snobby residents. Meanwhile, 'supersmart' 12-year-old Paloma Josse, who switches off narration with Renee, lives in the building with her wealthy, liberal family. Having grasped life's futility early on, Paloma plans to commit suicide on her 13th birthday. The arrival of a new tenant, Kakuro Ozu, who befriends both the young pessimist and the concierge alike, sets up their possible transformations. By turns very funny (particularly in Paloma's sections) and heartbreaking, Barbery never allows either of her dour narrators to get too cerebral or too sentimental. Her simple plot and sudden denouement add up to a great deal more than the sum of their parts. (Sept.)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)

Review:

"With its refined taste and political perspective, this is an elegant, light-spirited and very European adult fable." Kirkus Reviews

Review:

"[A] quiet, graceful book....[I]t leaps to soaring heights — movingly and beautifully....The strength of The Elegance of the Hedgehog is Barbery's ability to create characters that come alive with each thought, gesture and literary reference." Chicago Sun-Times

Review:

"Even when the novel is most essayistic, the narrators' kinetic minds and engaging voices (in Alison Anderson's fluent translation) propel us ahead." Caryn James, The New York Times Book Review

Review:

"The Elegance of the Hedgehog is one of those novels that hangs around in your head for quite a while after you've put it down. An enjoyable read." Rocky Mountain News

Review:

"The plot thins at moments and is supplanted with philosophical discourse on culture, the ruling class, and the injustices done to the poor, leaving the reader enlightened on Kant but disappointed with the story at hand." Booklist

Synopsis:

In this enthralling international bestseller, two girls live inconspicuous lives in the center of an elegant Paris apartment building. It is only when a stranger moves into their building — and sees through the girls' disguises — that Paloma and Renee discover their kindred spirits.

About the Author

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is Muriel Barbery's second novel. Her first book, Une gourmandize, has been translated into twelve languages. It will be published by Europa Editions in 2009.

Alison Anderson is the author of two novels, Hidden Latitudes and Darwin's Wink. She has translated two novels by Sélim Nassib for Europa Editions, I Loved You for Your Voice and The Palestinian Lover.

What Our Readers Are Saying

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Average customer rating based on 81 comments:

Invisible Lizard, November 12, 2014 (view all comments by Invisible Lizard)
Best book I've read in months. Hands down.

Of course, it's been sitting on my shelf for years. I recently finished up a string of relative light weight semi-stinkers and figured a translated French book about philosophy and god-knows-what-else could be just what I needed to cleanse the palate. If nothing else, it would be quick, I felt pretty sure, and I hoped for little more than that.

Wow, did I misjudge this one.

First of all, let me say a word about the writing. It was sublime. And because this is a translated text, I think I have to give serious credit to the translator, Alison Anderson. Lots of times when you read translated books, you stumble across expressions, idioms and even simple word choices that break into the flow of your reading because they seem out of place. Lots of times those are foreign expressions/words which don't translate well. The translator does the best that he/she can. I found none of that here. Maybe it's because Anderson is a writer herself. Maybe she took some liberties. I don't know. Regardless of how much freedom and creativity she infused into the English text, it could not have been what it is today without Barbery's original French text, which had to be (as I've said) sublime to begin with. What a pleasure to read.

The characters were just as rich. Reneé and Paloma, the two leads, provide the foreground, behind which a subtle arrangement of players create a layered background (Oza the new tenant, Manuela Reneé's friend, Paloma's bourgeois family). The story unfolds delicately. Told in alternating chapters between Reneé's anti-class snobbery and Paloma's adolescent ignorance-cum-loftiness, we see the world around 7 Rue de Grenelle in masked, unreliable tones: through Reneé's refusal to believe that anybody could see a common concierge as anything but a working class dullard and Paloma's belief that she has seen enough in her 13 years years to know, unequivocally, that there is no beauty in the world.

Through these two tainted perspectives, we learn about our dual protagonists, their lives, their loves, their thoughts. This gives Barbery plenty of time to wax rhapsodic on any number of topics from philosophy to modern cinema, and it's often in these asides that we, the reader, get caught up in her beautiful writing and forget there is a story going on in the background.

But there *is* a story going on, and that's what makes this book better than so many alternatives. It's easy to find beautiful writing without a good story. It's easy to find a good story without beautiful writing. It's very uncommon to find the two combined so nicely. Barbery blends them together masterfully.

A note about the ending, which I will state as spoiler-free as possible.

Others have commented upon the ending, mostly favorably, albeit with an occasional ode to a box of tissues. In my opinion, it ended perfectly. Anton Chekov famously said that if you hang a rifle on the wall in the first chapter, then in the second or third chapter it must go off. Otherwise why put it there in the first place? Considering Paloma's 13th birthday ultimatum, somebody had to fire that rifle. Sad as I was to see Reneé take up that mantel, the larger story continues on (in my mind) even after the last page is done, left as we are with these parting words from Paloma:

"Thinking back on it, this evening, with my heart and my stomach all like jelly, I have finally concluded, maybe that's what life is about: there's a lot of despair, but also the odd moment of beauty, where time is no longer the same. 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 never. Yes, that's it, an always within never. Don't worry Renée… from now on, for you, I'll be searching for those moments of always within never. Beauty, in this world."
Was this comment helpful? | Yes | No
lovingthelot, October 26, 2014 (view all comments by lovingthelot)
There is much more going on behind the door of the concierge, but then aren't concierges rather invisible unless you need them.But everyone in the building also have their secret lives. There is a dying food critic upstairs, a suicidal teenager and a Japanese man who is the one person who really sees them and changes their lives paths. Heartbreaking but also heart warming. This is one of my favorite reads of all times. This may initially seem a woman's read but I was in Powells and saw a man clutch it to his heart with tears in his eyes saying, "It was just so wonderful." You will want to read it again and again.
Was this comment helpful? | Yes | No
Rose E Dahl, October 21, 2014 (view all comments by Rose E Dahl)
The Elegance of the Hedgehog was a delight to breeze through, but I would gladly pick it up again for a more methodical read in order to fully absorb and appreciate the intellectual references, subtle humor, intricate language, and heartbreaking character development. Sequel, please?
Was this comment helpful? | Yes | No
View all 81 comments

Product Details

ISBN:
9781933372600
Author:
Barbery, Muriel
Publisher:
Europa Editions
Translator:
Anderson, Alison
Subject:
Literary
Subject:
France
Subject:
Paris
Subject:
Apartment concierges - France - Paris
Subject:
Apartment dwellers - France - Paris
Subject:
Literature-A to Z
Copyright:
Edition Description:
Paperback / softback
Publication Date:
September 2008
Binding:
Paperback
Grade Level:
from 12
Language:
English
Pages:
336
Dimensions:
7.75 x 5.06 in 1 lb
Age Level:
from 18

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Product details 336 pages Europa Editions - English 9781933372600 Reviews:
"Staff Pick" by ,

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a study in the dichotomy of the hidden inner self versus outer perceptions. Paloma and René are each careful to build a facade that hides their true nature from the world. Until a new tenant moves into their building, this plan has worked well — but no longer. What happens when you meet someone who can see who you really are? Littered with dozens of literary, art, and music references, this quiet novel is a treat for lovers of culture. Beautifully written, poignant, and so very bittersweet.

"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "This dark but redemptive novel, an international bestseller, marks the debut in English of Normandy philosophy professor Barbery. Renee Michel, 54 and widowed, is the stolid concierge in an elegant Paris hotel particulier. Though 'short, ugly, and plump,' Renee has, as she says, 'always been poor,' but she has a secret: she's a ferocious autodidact who's better versed in literature and the arts than any of the building's snobby residents. Meanwhile, 'supersmart' 12-year-old Paloma Josse, who switches off narration with Renee, lives in the building with her wealthy, liberal family. Having grasped life's futility early on, Paloma plans to commit suicide on her 13th birthday. The arrival of a new tenant, Kakuro Ozu, who befriends both the young pessimist and the concierge alike, sets up their possible transformations. By turns very funny (particularly in Paloma's sections) and heartbreaking, Barbery never allows either of her dour narrators to get too cerebral or too sentimental. Her simple plot and sudden denouement add up to a great deal more than the sum of their parts. (Sept.)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Review A Day" by , "Renee and Paloma are brought together by their mutual fascination with the building's new tenant, Kakuro Ozu, who sees through their carefully constructed identities — which he does simply by refusing to believe that a concierge and a child are second-class citizens. Between the three of them, their appreciation for the whole of art — literature, painting, film, even fine food — allows them to transcend the walls of class, race, age, and gender." (read the entire Powells.com review)
"Review" by , "With its refined taste and political perspective, this is an elegant, light-spirited and very European adult fable."
"Review" by , "[A] quiet, graceful book....[I]t leaps to soaring heights — movingly and beautifully....The strength of The Elegance of the Hedgehog is Barbery's ability to create characters that come alive with each thought, gesture and literary reference."
"Review" by , "Even when the novel is most essayistic, the narrators' kinetic minds and engaging voices (in Alison Anderson's fluent translation) propel us ahead."
"Review" by , "The Elegance of the Hedgehog is one of those novels that hangs around in your head for quite a while after you've put it down. An enjoyable read."
"Review" by , "The plot thins at moments and is supplanted with philosophical discourse on culture, the ruling class, and the injustices done to the poor, leaving the reader enlightened on Kant but disappointed with the story at hand."
"Synopsis" by , In this enthralling international bestseller, two girls live inconspicuous lives in the center of an elegant Paris apartment building. It is only when a stranger moves into their building — and sees through the girls' disguises — that Paloma and Renee discover their kindred spirits.
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