The Elegance of the Hedgehog

by

Muriel BARBERY

ABOUT THE BOOK

In a bourgeois apartment building in Paris, we encounter Renée, an intelligent, philosophical, and cultured concierge who masks herself as the stereotypical uneducated “super” to avoid suspicion from the building’s pretentious inhabitants. Also living in the building is Paloma, the adolescent daughter of a parliamentarian, who has decided to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday because she cannot bear to live among the rich. Although they are passing strangers, it is through Renée’s observations and Paloma’s journal entries that The Elegance of the Hedgehog reveals the absurd lives of the wealthy. That is until a Japanese businessman moves into the building and brings the two characters together.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Muriel Barbery (born 28 May 1969 in Casablanca, Morocco) is a French novelist and professor of philosophy.

arbery 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.[1]

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.[3] 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.

REVIEWS

The formula that made more than half a million readers in France fall in love with this book has, among other ingredients: intelligent humor, fine sentiments, an excellent literary and philosophical backdrop, good taste, sophistication and substance.
La Repubblica

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.

WHY I LOVED THIS BOOK

For whatever reason, I’m losing my ability to read French books; their language  sounds now usually dull and pompous to me. It is a strange phenomenon for someone who has devoured so many French books.

As I couldn’t anyway find this one in French in the US, I listened to its English version, and oh, what a delight!

Of course, if you have never lived in an apartment building with a “concierge”, this book may be difficult for you to appreciate in its full worth and beauty.

The “concierge” is so often this very nosy woman who manages to know everything about everyone, and who’s often caught “spying” behind a curtain and all the comings and goings around her “kingdom”. I remember the most serious insult my mother would give to someone a bit too nosy to her taste, by declaring: “Quelle concierge!” (“she’s so much like a concierge!”)

So to remain true to the regular picture, Renée has this real “concierge” façade, symbolized and lived out in the 2 parts of her apartement: one with a noisy TV, set on a stupid channel, and a back room where she spends hours delighting in philsophy books and the like.

This façade will collapse with the meeting of a new tenant, and of a smart young girl, Paloma, disgusted by the wealth and low cultural level of her parents and milieu.

This book is full of wit and I laughed a lot, through the reflections of Paloma and Renée.

Through it, I also discovered Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas!

In a word, I believe this book has reconciled me with French literature.

And here is the trailer of the movie! And my reaction to the movie.

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