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review SPOILER ALERT! 2016-05-16 18:32
Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog
The Elegance of the Hedgehog - Muriel Barbery

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. [ synopsis from goodreads ]

 

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review 2016-04-20 04:37
The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery
The Elegance of the Hedgehog - 'Muriel Barbery', 'Alison Anderson (Translator)'

What is life for? And how should we live? Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog revolves around these two questions through two characters who live in the same apartment building. Paloma Josse, at 12, thinks she has discovered life’s racket and makes plans to avoid her fate. Renée Michel, the building’s concierge, has been hiding her intelligence from everyone in her life, disappearing into a stereotype to avoid notice. Nothing would have changed if Kakuro Ozu hadn’t moved in upstairs and upset the status quo...

 

Read the rest of my review at A Bookish Type. I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration.

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review 2016-03-29 23:39
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
The Elegance of the Hedgehog - Muriel Barbery

Renee Marchel is a 54 year old woman who is the concierge of an upper-crust apartment building in France.  We are introduced to Renee in all her self-described frumpiness as she tells us:

 

“I am a widow, I am short, ugly, and plump, I have bunions on my feet and, if I am to credit certain early mornings of self-inflicted disgust, the breath of a mammoth. I did not go to college; I have always been poor, discreet, and insignificant. I live alone with my cat, a big lazy tom who has no distinguishing features other than the fact that his paws smell bad when he is annoyed. Neither he nor I make any special effort to take part in the social doings of our respective species.”

 

But there is so much more to Renee.  She is also interested in philosophy, art, literature, music, foreign films, and the Japanese tea ritual among other things.  She prefers to hide her cultured tastes behind society’s stereotypes for her class because she knows that no matter what she will never fit in.  Renee’s best friend is Manuela, the Portuguese maid for most of the building’s residents.  With Manuela she is able to share some of her inner joys and be more herself.   But the rest of the world is kept at a discreet distance.

 

Paloma Josse is a highly intelligent 12 year old who lives with her well-to-do parents in one of the apartments.  She works hard to make sure the world around her doesn’t have any idea how intelligent she really is.  Paloma loves to hide away from the world, reading manga, and journaling about her philosophy on life, and the human condition.  She believes adults are always foolishly striving to be adult, when they really have no idea what life’s all about and how to get along in the world.  As she writes in her journal:

 

“Life has meaning and we grown-ups know what it is, is the universal lie that everyone is supposed to believe. Once you become an adult and you realize that's not true, it's too late.”

 

and

 

 “We think we can make honey without sharing in the fate of bees, but we are in truth nothing but poor bees, destined to accomplish our task and then die.” 

 

Paloma sees the world around her as cruel and ugly, and she plans to commit suicide on her 13th birthday.  

 

Both Renee and Paloma encase themselves in a public persona that hides their true identities.  Their observations on those around them are so intuitive yet they are not sure what to make of the world.  Neither of them feels that they would be accepted for who they truly are.   A very interesting look at the metaphorical hedgehog that I believe exists in all of us to some degree.     

 

When a long-time resident of the apartment building dies, a new resident moves in.  Kakuro Ozu is a cultured Japanese businessman whom everyone is immediately curious about.   Upon arrival, Kakuro immediately sees behind the facade of Renee and he watches her carefully.  He knows she shares a passion for Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and he approaches her about it.  Renee is very put out that Kakuro can see through her “outer spines” as it were, and she doesn’t know how to react.

 

As friendships blossom between these three, Renee and Paloma begin to see more beauty in the world around them.and they start to imagine what role they might play in that world.  

 

I wasn’t sure what to make of this book at first and it really took me quite some time to get into it.  I was put off by all the cynicism that both Renee and Paloma exhibited.  Perhaps because I have enough of my own!  It’s not a comforting book, but it had definite moments of beauty.  For me it was a book that very slowly crept in, and I found myself changing my mind and thinking “this is good, this is really getting good,” then the end comes along and it really smacks you in the face!  My initial reaction was to give the book 3 stars, however the more I think about it, the more I like it.  I may be thinking about this one for quite some time.   

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review 2015-07-07 19:32
The Elegance of the Hedgehog
The Elegance of the Hedgehog - Muriel Barbery

Upon finishing, there was only one word that stuck in my mind to describe this book: sophisticated. "The Elegance of the Hedgehog" is a perfect fit as a title for the truly magnificent piece of literature that lay within. What's more, I couldn't believe my luck when I came across it at a used bookstore last week for a dirt-cheap price. It seems almost a shame now to sell such a wonder for so cheap.


I was once again reminded of the European mindset and style while reading, and I think that the reason why this wasn't so well received in North America (at least in my opinion), is primarily because of the difference in upbringing in manner and mindset. It sounds condescending but I don't mean it to be so, as I think it's simply a difference that should be acknowledged and accepted. What many reviews complained about in terms of name-dropping and philosophical babble was completely opposite of what I felt of the book. Reading it felt like a conversation I would have at home, or with my Croatian best friend. It made me feel at home and comfortable, and I think it's because I, too, had a Euro-centric upbringing despite living in Canada from a very early age. It's a book that wonderfully reflects the mindset of the country that it was written in, and of the continent in general, I think, and as a result it should be approached with this in mind. Other reviews were personal reflections that ignored this fact and it seems such a thing would be injustice to the book.


As for the story itself, I was pulled in right away and loved both my characters. I saw a lot of myself in Paloma, in her opinion of the world and the people around her. Renee, in turn, made me wonder whether I would be much like her when I grow up. Ozu and the tenants of the building were a wonderful contrast, as well as microcosm, for the discussion on society that this book both metaphorically and directly spoke about, doing so very eloquently, with well-chosen references and examples of famous figures and works of art and literature. It reminded me of my Theory of Knowledge course I had to take last year, which explored the concept of knowledge and how we "know" what we know. It's probably also the exposure to that course that made me more receptive to the book, as opposed to the experience one might have "going in dry" with no prior knowledge or exposure to being in that kind of mindset. I won't point to any plot specific details as I feel that'll spoil the wonderful reading experience, but I will say that I was very satisfied with the way the author chose to direct the story and ultimately end it, very fittingly and without overly dramatizing it.


"The Elegance of the Hedgehog" is a poignant and, really, just a beautiful piece of work that will stay with me forever. It deserves to be revisited again and again, to soak up the atmosphere and the endless stream of thoughts that lay scattered in the pages. Not only is it subtly philosophical but also painfully human in a way that many people don't like to see. It points to all the shortcomings and every day ugliness, mediating it with glimpses into beauty and peace. Reading it in itself was a meditative experience, one I would gladly repeat again and again. One of the most moving reading experiences I have had in a long time, possibly even ever.

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review 2015-07-07 19:14
The Elegance of the Hedgehog
The Elegance of the Hedgehog - Muriel Barbery

This was a very unsettling reading experience. The story deals with two female protagonists, one the 54-year-old concierge of a Paris apartment house, the other a 12-year-old school girl who lives in one of these apartments with her family. Both women are granted enormous intelligence beyond their stations, and the majority of the book simply involves their whimsical musings. The author attempts something profound and meaningful through her character's observations, but because I disliked both women, I felt like the polite listener at a boozy meeting of a campus philosophy club. Throughout the story, the child contemplates suicide and burning down her apartment as a way to culminate the lack of meaning in her life. And this kid is supposed to be smart? She mocks her French teacher's weight and tosses around the word "retard," while chastising others for their lack of precise language. Anyway, yes, there was something ugly and offensive about this book, and I can't help feel that it reflects on the author's world view. I got the sense that the author may not really love people or feel empathy in a way that allows that bridge into her written world. And because of this, unfortunately, the reader feels nothing, even at the story's supposed dramatic conclusion. I looked up Ms. Barbery's picture, just to see who this person is. On a psychological level, her writing demonstrates an anxious desire for order and control. Why was this book so popular in France? 

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