guide_289.jpg

Elegance of the Hedgehog (Barbery)

The Elegance of the Hedgehog
Muriel Barbery, 2007
Penguin Group USA
336 pp.
ISBN-13: 9781933372600


Summary
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 twelve-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 sixteenth 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. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio 
Birth—1969
Where—Casablanca, Morocco
Education—École Normale Supérieure de Fontenay-Saint-
   Cloud
Currently—lives in Japan


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. (From the publisher.)

More
Barbery entered the École Normale Supérieure de Fontenay-Saint-Cloud in 1990 and obtained her agrégation in philosophy in 1993. She then taught philosophy at the Université de Bourgogne, in a lycée, and at the Saint-Lô IUFM.

Her novel L'Élégance du hérisson (translated into English as The Elegance of the Hedgehog) topped the French best-seller lists for 30 consecutive weeks[2] and, reprinted 50 times, had by May 2008 sold more than a million copies. Her first novel, Une Gourmandise, appeared in English translation as Gourmet Rhapsody in 2009.

Barbery currently lives in Japan, where she is composing her third novel. (From Wikipedia.)



Book Reviews 
Nobody ever imagined that this tender, funny book with a philosophical vein would have enjoyed such incredible success. For some, it is part Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder, part Monsieur Malaussene by Daniel Pennac. While for others it resembles a written version of the film Amelie. Either way, readers are responding in vast numbers.
Le Monde


Enthusiastically recommended for anyone who loves books that grow quietly and then blossom suddenly.
Marie Clair (France)


An exquisite book in the form of a philosophical fable that has enchanted hundreds of thousands of readers.
Elle (Italy)


The Elegance of the Hedgehog, a best seller in France and several other countries, belongs to a distinct subgenre: the accessible book that flatters readers with its intellectual veneer…Renee's story is addressed to no one (that is, to us), while Paloma's takes the form of a notebook crammed with what she labels "profound thoughts." Both create eloquent little essays on time, beauty and the meaning of life…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 - New York Times


Renee Michel and Paloma Josse provide the double narrative of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, and you will—this is going to sound corny—fall in love with both. In Europe, where Muriel Barbery's book became a huge bestseller in 2007, it has inspired the kind of affection and enthusiasm American readers bestow on the works of Alexander McCall Smith. Still, this is a very French novel: tender and satirical in its overall tone, yet most absorbing because of its reflections on the nature of beauty and art, the meaning of life and death. Out of context, Madame Michel's pensees may occasionally sound pretentious, just as Paloma might sometimes pass for a Gallic (and female) version of Holden Caulfield. But, for the most part, Barbery makes us believe in these two unbelievable characters.
Michael Dirda - Washington Post


This story, like all great tales, will break your heart, but it will also make you realize—or remember—that sometimes the pain is worth it."
Chicago Sun-Times


A beautiful story with a large cast of fascinating, complicated characters whose behavior is delightfully unpredictable.
Wall Street Journal


This dark but redemptive novel, an international bestseller, marks the debut in English of Normandy philosophy professor Barbery. Renée Michel, 54 and widowed, is the stolid concierge in an elegant Paris hôtel particulier. Though "short, ugly, and plump," Renée 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 Renée, 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.
Publishers Weekly


Published in France in 2006, this work quickly captured the European imagination, and the advance praise is sufficiently glowing to guarantee attention in the English-speaking world. The novel itself is more problematic. Philosophy professor Barbery—the author of one previous novel, Une gourmandise-has fashioned a slow and sentimental fable out of her own personal interests—art, philosophy, and Japanese culture-about a widow who serves as caretaker of a Parisian apartment building and a troubled girl living in the building. Barbery attempts to make the story appear more cutting-edge by introducing dizzying changes in typography, but the effect seems precious from the outset and quickly grow tiresome. Recommended for public libraries where literature in translation is in demand and for academic libraries to complement their French collections
Sam Popowich - Library Journal


The second novel (but first to be published in the United States) from France-based author Barbery teaches philosophical lessons by shrewdly exposing rich secret lives hidden beneath conventional exteriors. Renee Michel has been the concierge at an apartment building in Paris for 27 years. Uneducated, widowed, ugly, short and plump, she looks like any other French apartment-house janitor, but Mme Michel is by no means what she seems. A "proletarian autodidact," she has broad cultural appetites-for the writings of Marx and Kant, the novels of Tolstoy, the films of Ozu and Wenders. She ponders philosophical questions and holds scathing opinions about some of the wealthy tenants of the apartments she maintains, but she is careful to keep her intelligence concealed, having learned from her sister's experience the dangers of using her mind in defiance of her class. Similarly, 12-year-old Paloma Josse, daughter of one of the well-connected tenant families, shields her erudition, philosophical inclinations, criticism-and also her dreams of suicide. But when a new Japanese tenant, Kakuro Ozu, moves in, everything changes for both females. He detects their intelligence and invites them into his cultured life. Curious and deeply fulfilling friendships blossom among the three, offering Paloma and Renee freedom from the mental prisons confining them. With its refined taste and political perspective, this is an elegant, light-spirited and very European adult fable.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions
1. True life is elsewhere
One French critic called The Elegance of the Hedgehog “the ultimate celebration of every person’s invisible part.” How common is the feeling that a part of oneself is invisible to or ignored by others? How much does this “message” contribute to the book’s popularity? Why is it sometimes difficult to show people what we really are and to have them appreciate us for it?

2. This book will save your life
The Elegance of the Hedgehog has been described as “a toolbox one can look into to resolve life’s problems,” a “life-transforming read,” and a “life-affirming book.” Do you feel this is an accurate characterization of the novel? If so, what makes it thus: the story told, the characters and their ruminations, something else? Can things like style, handsome prose, well-turned phrases, etc. add up to a life-affirming book independently of the story told? To put it another way—Renée Michel’s way—can an encounter with pure beauty change our lives?

3. —a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet. Both Renée and Paloma use stereotypes to their benefit, hiding behind the perceptions others have of their roles. Our understanding and appreciation of people is often limited to a superficial acknowledgement of their assigned roles, their social monikers—single mother, used car salesman, jock, investment banker, senior citizen, cashier… While we are accustomed to thinking of people as victims of stereotypes, is it possible that sometimes stereotypes can be useful? When, under what circumstances, and why, might we welcome an interpretation based on stereotypes of our actions or of who we are? Have you ever created a mise en place that conforms to some stereotype in order to hide a part of yourself?

4. “One of the strengths I derive from my class background is that I am accustomed to contempt.” (Dorothy Allison)
Some critics call this novel a book about class. Barbery herself called Renée Michel, among other things, a vehicle for social criticism. Yet for many other readers and reviewers this aspect is marginal. In your reading, how integral is social critique to the novel? What kind of critique is made? Many pundits were doubtful about the book’s prospects in the US for this very reason: a critique of French class-based society, however charming it may be, cannot succeed in a classless society. Is the US really a classless society? Are class prejudices and class boundaries less pronounced in the US than in other countries? Are the social critique elements in the book relevant to American society?

5. Hope I die before I get old
Paloma, the book’s young protagonist, tells us that she plans to commit suicide on the day of her thirteenth birthday. She cannot tolerate the idea of becoming an adult, when, she feels, one inevitably renounces ideals and subjugates passions and principles to pragmatism. Must we make compromises, renounce our ideals, and betray our youthful principles when we become adults? If so, why? Do these compromises and apostasies necessarily make us hypocrites? At the end of the book, has Paloma re-evaluated her opinion of the adult world or confirmed it?

6. Kigo: the 500 season words
Famously, the Japanese language counts twelve distinct seasons during the year, and in traditional Japanese poetry there are five hundred words to characterize different stages and attributes assigned to the seasons. As evidenced in its literature, art, and film, Japanese culture gives great attention to detail, subtle changes, and nuances. How essential is Kakuro’s being Japanese to his role as the character that reveals others’ hidden affinities? Or is it simply his fact of being an outsider that matters? Could he hail from Tasmania and have the same impact on the story?

7. Circumstances maketh the woman
Adolescent children and the poor are perhaps those social groups most prone to feel themselves trapped in situations that they cannot get out of, that they did not choose, and that condition their entire outlook. Some readers have baulked at the inverse snobbery with which the main characters in The Elegance of the Hedgehog initially seem to view the world around them and the people who inhabit it. Is this disdain genuine or a well-honed defence mechanism provoked by their circumstances? If the later, can it therefore be justified? Do Renée’s and Paloma’s views of the world and the people who surround them change throughout the book? Would Paloma and Renée be more prone to fraternal feelings if their circumstances were different?

8. “Unprovided with original learning, unformed in the habits of thinking, unskilled in the arts of composition, I resolved to write a book.” (Edward Gibbon)
In one of the book’s early chapters, Renée describes what it is like to be an autodidact. “There are days when I feel I have been able to grasp all there is to know in one single gaze, as if invisible branches suddenly spring out of nowhere, weaving together all the disparate strands of my reading—and then suddenly the meaning escapes, the essence evaporates, and no matter how often I reread the same lines, they seem to flee ever further with each subsequent reading, and I see myself as some mad old fool who thinks her stomach is full because she’s been attentively reading the menu. Apparently this combination of ability and blindness is a symptom exclusive to the autodidact.” How accurately does this describe sensations common to autodidacts? What are the advantages and disadvantages of being self-taught?

9. The Philosopher’s Stone
Much has been made of the book’s philosophical bent. Some feel that the author’s taste for philosophy and her having woven philosophical musings into her characters’ ruminations, particularly those of Renée, hampers the plot; others seem to feel that it is one of the book’s most appealing attributes. What effect did the philosophical elements in this book have on you and your reading? Can you think of other novels that make such overt philosophical references? Which, and how does Hedgehog resemble or differ from them?

10. A Bridge across Generations
Renée is fifty-four years old. Paloma, the book’s other main character, is twelve. Yet much of the book deals with these two ostensibly different people discovering their elective affinities. How much is this book about the possibilities of communication across generations? And what significance might the fact that Renée is slightly too old to be Paloma’s mother, and slightly too young to be her grandmother have on this question of intergenerational communication?

11. Some stories are universal
The Elegance of the Hedgehog has been published in thirty-five languages, in over twenty-five countries. It has been a bestseller in France, Spain, Germany, Italy, South Korea, and America. In many other countries, while it may not have made the bestseller lists, it nonetheless has enjoyed considerable success. In the majority of these cases, success has come despite modest marketing, despite the author’s reticence to appear too often in public, and her refusal to appear in television, and despite relatively limited critical response. The novel has reached millions of readers largely thanks to word-of-mouth. What, in your opinion, makes this book so appealing to people? And why, even when compared to other beloved and successful books, is this one a book that people so frequently talk about, recommend to their friends, and give as gifts? And what, if anything, does the book’s international success say about the universality of fictional stories today?

12. “…a text written above all to be read and to arouse emotions in the reader.”
In a related question, The Elegance of the Hedgehog has been described as a “book for readers” as opposed to a book for critics, reviewers, and professors. What do you think is meant by this? And, if the idea is that it is a book that pleases readers but not critics, do you think this could be true? If so, why?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

top of page (summary)

 

Site by BOOM Boom Supercreative

LitLovers © 2014