Wednesday, 9 May 2012

The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Author: Muriel Barbery)

The Blurb from Goodreads: 

Renée is the concierge of a grand Parisian apartment building, home to members of the great and the good. Over the years she has maintained her carefully constructed persona as someone reliable but totally uncultivated, in keeping, she feels, with society's expectations of what a concierge should be. But beneath this facade lies the real Renée passionate about culture and the arts, and more knowledgeable in many ways than her employers with their outwardly successful but emotionally void lives.

Down in her lodge, apart from weekly visits by her one friend Manuela, Renée lives resigned to her lonely lot with only her cat for company. Meanwhile, several floors up, twelve-year-old Paloma Josse is determined to avoid the pampered and vacuous future laid out for her, and decides to end her life on her thirteenth birthday. But unknown to them both, the sudden death of one of their privileged neighbours will dramatically alter their lives forever.  

By turn moving and hilarious, this unusual novel became the the French publishing phenomenon of 2007: from an initial print run of 3,000 to sales of over 2 million in hardback. It took 35 weeks to reach the number one bestseller spot but has now spent longer in the French bestseller lists than Dan Brown.

The Book Depository

My Thoughts on The Elegance of the Hedgehog: 

Every so often a book comes along which you just fall in love with, gently and slowly. It sort of creeps up on you and you know that this book is now part of your life, that these characters are people to you. Muriel Barbery’s book, The Elegance of the Hedgehog is one of those for me. The main character, Renée was so real that when I was in Paris shortly after reading this book I went looking for the apartment building where she had lived, almost as though on a pilgrimage. Of course she is not real, of course the other occupants of the building are not real, but the story was so real that I believed every word of it. 

Renée, the concierge who reads Tolstoy and Kant, aware that we all have to project a certain image to the world so that we don’t confuse those around us, those who put us in a little box and are uncomfortable if we don’t fit into it snugly, is so clever that she has two television sets in her apartment. On one she watches wonderful movies and documentaries, and another one – the one which is visible by occupants in the building in which she is the concierge – is tuned to inane daytime soaps and reality TV shows, conforming to what is expected to be her taste in entertainment. How clever of Ms Barbery to think of adding in detail such as that, detail which we would not have missed if it had not been there but which is just so right in completing the character study of this woman we come to know so intimately. 

Initially I was quite judgemental: I loved Renée but greatly disliked the wealthy occupants of the apartment building in which she lived and worked. I didn’t even believe the words of Paloma, the suicidal young girl who forms the second side of the personal triangle which makes up the structure of this book: I felt her thought processes and reasonings were way too old for a 12 year old, and so therefore I rejected her. I was wrong. I came back to Paloma, realising that the very precociousness of her thoughts was part of her tragic condition, her mental state, and then I accepted her and put her in the same box with Renée, the box with “Approval” stamped on the lid. 

As I judged Paloma, she judged the other members of her family far more harshly. In her isolation, she took a blinkered view of her family. Her family were indeed dysfunctional. Her sister, Colombe, considered by Paloma to be shallow and foolish, is just another young girl suffering from the same isolation but dealing with it in a different way, by a seeming frivolity and noisiness, and a growing obsession with neatness. While one sister is planning her own death, the other is slipping into a world of self-harm. Meanwhile, to add to this cheery mixture, their mother just quietly retreats more and more into a life dedicated to her cats and houseplants.  Father, the consummate politician, smiles in the face of such devastation, retreating into his games of rugby and you can’t help but feel that he will one day end up guzzling wine with peasants on a mountain top and having unprotected sexual relations with the local rugby players, or goats, whichever comes to hand. What a family. They make me think of a very thin sheet of toffee - one light tap and it will shatter. They are brittle, and each so alone. Poor sad household - even the cat needs medication. 

Renée, of course, is just as prejudiced and biased as those she condemns, the wealthy, the aristocratic, the bourgeoisie. What we see, of course, with Paloma's family, with the other characters who come and go through the grand doors of this apartment building, is that each and every one of them – of us? - is imprisoned by their "standing" in the community just as much as Renée is. We are left to wonder, indeed, whether Renée has the easier time of it: she has to live up to nothing because nothing is expected of her.  She does, though, have the supreme joy of wallowing in her own intelligence, and possesses a certain smugness in knowing that she is so superior to most of those "successful" people around her.  

The safe life that Renée knows, the invisible walls which Paloma has built around herself, are about to be swept aside when an intriguing new tenant, the venerable Japanese gentleman, Ozu, moves into one of the apartments, an apartment left vacant after the death of its previous owner. Barbery has given us Renée, has given us Paloma, Colombe, the various others who come and go in this microcosm of society, but now she moves the boundaries and takes us on the most wonderful ride. What a marvellous skill to introduce a character so unexpected, so seemingly unconnected, but one who will form the third part of the triangle, perhaps the good old “square on the hypotenuse”. 

And then, yes, that ending, that death, that sentence which in itself is a full stop - stark, but beautiful. All the philosophy, all the amazing words and thoughts that we have become used to with Renée are encapsulated in two words, "I die".  Masterful! 


  1. Hello Beejay! I am delighted that you left me a comment and tipped me off on your blog. I was wiled away from homework, housework, and other equally dreadful tasks by all three of your lovely blogs :0). Clever you for having the talent and the tenacity to keep up with THREE! Goodness, many days I can't even stay on top of Biblio-Files and a regular dog-walking chore so I am duly impressed! I am always so pleased to meet a kindred bookish spirit like myself and I look forward to keeping tabs on what you're reading here on Beejay's Books. Keep writing; you're brilliant at it. I feel safe in predicting that you have not won your last writing competition. The long list is not where your work shall remain. Looking forward to future musings, respectfully, Chanda.

  2. Hi Chanda.

    What lovely comments - thank you so much for taking the time to add them. I'm glad you enjoyed my blogs. I'm able to do it only because I have given up work this year and gone back to studying - entering the world of university for the first time in my life - and the blogs are a lovely distraction for me, and allow me to indulge in a bit of creative writing as opposed to academic writing.

    Thank you also for becoming a follower. I'll look forward to chatting to you over books and whatever.

    Cheers ... Beejay

  3. Congratulations! I just started grad school so I hear you on the creative writing. Some days I want to write anything, absolutely anything, that doesn't include in-text citations :0). It is my honor and good fortune to follow your blogs.
    Have a wonderful weekend and best of luck to you on your studies!