Sep 24, 2009

Book Review: The Elegance of the Hedgehog

The Elegance of the Hedgehog The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery


My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved this social satire on modern French manners and society through the main characters.

Take one disenchanted 12-year-old child, smart but cynical for her age, add an equally cynical but likeable concierge/caretaker in a building of private apartments, and then mix in an erudite and wealthy Japanese gentlemen - shake together and see what happens when they meet and interact.

What they have in common is a love of beauty and art. Young Paloma thinks the world is not worth living in, until she discovers what she describes as perfection - the movements of a rising young player in a football game, for instance. The concierge, Renee, hides her love of good food, art, music, and literature behind nondescript clothing, unkempt hair, and a blank face that she shows to the tenants of her building. The Japanese gentleman, Mr. Ozu, is a new tenant who enjoys fine painting, music, and literature.

When Paloma and Mr. Ozu reach the conclusion that Renee the concierge is smarter than she lets on, Mr. Ozu is certain that Renee's cat Leo is named after the Russian writer Tolstoy. Renee decides that Mr. Ozu has found her out; his two cats have the names of characters in Tolstoy's War and Peace after all, and he has begun to observe her with curiousity. Ozu and Renee play cat and mouse games at first, trying to discover more about each other.

Young Paloma is anxious to get away from her wealthy parents and irritating older sister, who are always trying to draw her into meaningless conversations. She finds refuge in Renee's apartment. Mr. Ozu decides to invite Renee, whom everyone sees as a lowly concierge, to his elegant apartment for tea and again for dinner.

What happens next? Well, I won't tell everything!

I liked Renee's philosophical discourses on art, literature, beauty, and life. Her character is drawn to show that social stereotypes are just what they are - stereotypes. A concierge brought up in relative poverty is not what may seem to the outside world. She hides her knowledge of literature and art and her love of classical music because she, like the young girl Paloma, wants to be left alone by people who wouldn't understand her.

For those who like unusual and rebellious characters and who enjoy reading social satire, I recommend The Elegance of the Hedgehog.

Can't wait to read Muriel Barbery's previous book, Gourmet Rhapsody, now out in translation.

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17 comments:

  1. Good review! I've been sort of apprehensive about reading this because I was afraid it would be too philosophical and deep for me.

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  2. good review...i have to stop reading reviews...i need to be reading books, not adding more books to my different wish lists! (see if you have several, it doesn't look so bad)

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  3. Very good review-Hedgehog is also a very good study of the effect of stereotypes and of the reading life-

    I recently read "Gourmet Rhapsody", her first book (it was translated after "Hedgehog")-I liked it a great deal also

    I have posted on both of these wonderful books on my blog-

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  4. I really loved this, too! And will be reading Gourmet Rhapsody in a month or two.. definitely before the year ends!

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  5. Thanks, Jenny, Hodgepodge, mel u: I loved this book, and you can tell.

    Claire: hope to see your review of Gourmet Rhapsody!

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  6. excellent review. I am so looking forward to this one. so many have seem to enjoy it; thanks

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  7. mel u: I have just read your review and several reviews you referred to in your post. Very interesting and enlightening reviews! I like your emphasis on Renee's secret reading life. I saw Mr. Ozu as a foil to the French society the author was satirizing, and didn't see him as a glorification of Japanese culture at all. Thanks for pointing out your review and all the other excellent comments on this novel book!

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  8. Hi, Harvee! I read this novel as well. I had a grand ol' time with it! I am now looking for The Gourmet Rhapsody.

    Don't you think that the idea of closeted intellectuals fascinating?

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  9. Peter: Yes, I do find it interesting, though I don't know anyone today I'd call a closet intellectual. I know some kids in school sometimes hide from their classmates how smart they are, but hope they grow out of that by high school and college.

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  10. I've read other positive reviews of this book, but yours is the one that made me want to read it!

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  11. Terrific review! I'm dying to read this book!

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  12. Diane, Stacybuckeye, Suko: Hope you enjoy the book as much as I did!

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  13. I've read so many differing thoughts on this one. I really enjoyed your thoughts on this book. I just may have to read it for myself.

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  14. Staci: I hope you get a chance to read it. I'd love to hear if you like it.

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  15. What a wonderful review of this book - and thank you for dropping by my blog :) I've added your review link to my post.

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  16. I hadn't thought of the Japanese culture as a foil to the French culture, but it makes sense.

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  17. Jeanne: I didn't see Ozu as representative of Japanese culture, just as a quiet but cultured and unaffected man who is a sharp contrast to some of the frantic and neurotic tenants in the building, most of whom happen to be French!

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