The Elegance of the Hedgehog

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?

41 thoughts on “The Elegance of the Hedgehog

    • It is simply amazing. I was quite stunned by how much it moved me, I haven’t been so moved by a book for a very long time. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did when you do end up reading it! 🙂

  1. I’m SO going to read this book. I had loved the short review you gave after you started the book, sometime ago. But after reading this review, it sounds just the kind of book for me! Loved the review. 🙂

  2. Thinking of taking a break from the Book List challenge – this definitely sounds like one to put on my list. Great review 🙂

  3. It sounds like a wonderful story, although I hesitate to read a book that I know will make me cry! Mind you, that didn’t stop me from reading ‘Thirteen Reasons Why’. I’m adding it to my TBR list. 🙂

    • Oh really? See, for me the fact this book made me cry makes me realise just how much it moved me, and I love it all the more for it. The only other book to do so is my absolute favourite, Catch-22. I always want a book to just move me, and a book that moves me to tears or to the depths of sadness is just as important as a book that lifts me up with joy, too. As it is, this book does have both in equal measure in the end, but the ending was just so…powerful. Even thinking about it is making me tear up now 😛 Definitely give it a try, because it really is wonderful. 🙂

  4. I’m so glad you read it! I’ve been suggesting it to all of my friends, and it is one of my favorite books. In fact, whenever I’m feeling a bit down, I either read this book or Tuesdays With Morrie, and I always end up feeling better.

    • Ah yes, I love Tuesdays with Morrie too (and all of Mitch Albom’s books). I get the feeling I’ll be reading this book again in the future, I think it is a book I would gain a lot from a re-read. I actually have her other book, The Gourmet, which I might read now (it’s only short, a novella by the looks of it). 🙂

  5. Wow. What a glowing recommendation. Noted. Added. Will read. Will cry. Will silently curse you a little, and thank you a lot. Already am. 🙂

    • Hahaha! It’s not very often I just fall in love with a book like that, but I really did this time. And it happened so slowly I almost didn’t notice it happening as I read it (I read it quite slowly, to savour it…this should have made it obvious to myself). Hope you like it when you do read it.
      By the way did you check out my new music post? I’ve started the Music Mondays as separate posts now, it’s just before this one! Just thought you might be interested in it. 🙂

    • I know what you mean, it’s very thought-provoking, which I absolutely loved about it. I think it’s very daring and bold with some of its statements about life and about society, which was risky but has paid off in the end. I can’t wait to see what she writes next (well, after The Gourmet, the novella she wrote next which I’m going to read very soon). 🙂

  6. Would I be horrible if I admitted that I am both hesitant and intrigued by your review? Your writing is lovely and captivating, as always, but you mentioned that it contained dense “philosophical ponderings.” I was suddenly thrown back in time to my Western Thought class when I as thoroughly confused by Plato (and St. Augustine) and others. I’m not afraid I was not a good student of philosophy, and maybe my hesitation comes from that old insecurity. 🙂

    • Good Lord, I see all these typos on my response. I’m so sorry. Ugh. “I’m afraid I was not a good student of Philosophy…” is what I meant to say. Also correction: “…when I was thoroughly confused by Plato….”

      • Hhahaha, that’s okay, I had guessed what you meant by your typos before I even read your corrections! 😛 I’ve never actually formally studied philosophy (and haven’t really had time to study it informally either, for that matter, though the subject does interest me). I don’t think they are anything to be afraid of or hesitant about – at the most they only go for a page or two in most places, and they are normally in context and kind of brought to life by the events in the story, so it’s not like you’re reading philosophy theory or anything like that. It’s made quite interesting and understandable, some bits you might need to slow down for though, but the only thing I found was that if I was too sleepy I just couldn’t absorb it – this became more a book I would read in the mornings or late afternoons. Maybe see if you can find the book in a book shop somewhere and read through bits of it first before buying it, just to be sure. 🙂

    • Thank you, I hope you enjoy the book whenever you do read it! I think if a lot of people actually do go away and read this one, I’d love to get some discussion started about it one day in a few months time maybe. I also think I’ll want to re-read it later this year. 🙂

  7. Sounds really good! Will have to check it out, thanks for sharing! May I recommend The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. The ONE and ONLY book I have read in my life (and I read a lot) that has moved me beyond the point of profoundness… if thats even possible. It’s brilliant!!

  8. Pingback: The Gourmet: A tasty little novella | wantoncreation

  9. Pingback: Muriel Barbery’s Elegance of the Hedgehog | Sylvie's World is a Library

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