The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barberry

Elegance of the Hedgehog“Some colours are too vivid to explain. Some paintings have a beauty that can hardly be captured by mere words.” And The Elegance of the Hedgehog has beauty and elegance that transcends most known standards, and it’s excellently translated by Alison Anderson. It is clever, sensuous, and invites us to deep pondering of issues of fundamental importance in a setting of satire, humour, warmth and compassion.

This highly celebrated and praised novel has sold more than one million copies in France alone. And it has been a great success all over Europe. It is a very French novel, with strange and unlikely but likable characters and full of reflections on the nature of beauty and art and the meaning of life and death. It is written, of course, by an author well versed in Kant and Sartre and who seemingly is no stranger to Being and Nothingness.”

So begins a review of The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barberry. Our reading group enjoyed the novel on the whole but found it took a bit of getting into – the tipping point was the arrival of M. Ozu, a new Japanese resident in the apartment block!
The character of Renee generated much discussion – we were not sure why she had not realized her potential before now… The book was seen as a moral tale about making sure we live life to the full rather than avoiding it, and also a fascinating comment on Parisian society by a French author. The shocking ending was much appreciated.

Various comments included:
“It made me want to read Anna Karenina”
“I liked the Japanese toilet”
“ I did skip a few of the philosophical musings”
“I need to look up the still life painting”

Surely a book which stimulates comments like this is worth a look!

East Morton Reading Group
October 2011

Renee, a concierge in Paris, overseeing the cleaning and maintenance of a plush apartment block, leads a double life. Within her flat she has a room secretly devoted to artistic culture and one reserved for more mundane interests. Renee feels conscious of her love of art and culture. She goes to great lengths to conceal this passion, believing that if discovered she will be exposed and humiliated as a freak due to preconceived notions that would stigmatise her on the basis of class and culture.

The story also focuses on the emotionally complex teenager residing with her parents in the apartment above. The young schoolgirl is gifted with knowledge beyond her years. She feels stifled by home and school life and contemplates suicide until her life converges with Renee’s. Renee influences the young girl quite profoundly and a dramatic climax occurs.

This book was a fascinating and compelling read, filled with class division, snobbery, social status and emotional tension. Very cleverly written.

Shipley Reading Group

An unusual and sophisticated view of Paris life. It paints Renee the concierge as a lonely and sad figure. Suddenly unexpectedly her life changes for the better but is tragically ended by a freak accident. 7/10
Amusing, charming and moving, although sometimes over clever especially at the beginning. 8/10


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