This book is a tough one to review. Not because it’s bad, but rather quite the opposite – it is so good, it moved me so deeply, I feel that nothing I can write about it can really do it any justice. It moved me so much it has done something that only one other book has ever managed – it made me cry.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery was published in French in 2006, and in English in 2008, and has gone on to sell over five million copies worldwide, as well as having been made into a film, simply titled The Hedgehog, in France. The exquisitely philosophical novel is set in an upper class apartment building in Paris, almost entirely occupied with bourgeois families. The story flitters between narration by Renée Michel, a concierge in her fifties who has always been poor and ugly but also deeply intelligent and a secret autodidact (in order to not lose her job and to be accepted for her position in society), and journal entries by Paloma Josse, the twelve year old daughter of one of the families in the building, who feels disillusioned with life by those around her, and, hiding her intelligence from the world so that she too can fit in, intends to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday unless she can find some deeper meaning to life.
As the story progresses, the lives of these two characters start to cross more, particularly with the introduction of the character Kakuro Ozu, a Japanese businessman, also very cultured and philosophical, who moves into the building and befriends both Renée and Paloma. The story builds up slowly, and is filled with increasingly complex and dense philosophical ponderings and references, which in a lesser piece of writing could threaten to make it too difficult to read, and yet Barbery manages to integrate it into the story so smoothly, so convincingly, that the philosophy doesn’t just complement the story, but the story also complements the philosophy, bringing it to life and making it understandable.
The characters are fantastic, and despite the potential for them to come across as forced, they are entirely realistic. Paloma is very intelligent, but still believably a twelve year old, albeit a mentally unstable twelve year old. Renée is clearly convinced that she cannot allow anybody to know who she really is, and she very nearly falls apart when Kakuro Ozu begins to suspect her intelligence more and more throughout the novel. Yet the way it all fits together, and the way the characters change their perceptions of themselves and the world around them, works so well it is actually quite stunning and beautiful.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog, quite simply, is a beautiful and breathtaking novel. It balances great profundity with accessibility, beauty and charm with sadness and insight, and, as I said earlier, it darn well made me cry! It is slow, and some people may take a while to get into it, but I certainly loved it and have no hesitation in highly recommending it to anybody who thinks they would enjoy it – it is one of the few books this year I am happily giving five stars!
Have you read this book? What were your thoughts on it?
If you haven’t read this, do you think you would?