I won’t lie, I think a lot of the themes in The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery went over my head.
I came across this book when a character in The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George recommended The Elegance of the Hedgehog to another character who was lacking in self-confidence. I was intrigued by the theme in The Little Paris Bookshop that there is a perfect book for every reader’s emotional needs at any time and added quite a few titles to my wish list of books to read. The Elegance of the Hedgehog is the first one I’ve found. *
The Elegance of the Hedgehog is set in Paris. The heroine is Renee, a frumpy, ugly, and crotchety old concierge who hides her superior intelligence and taste from the rich and powerful people who live in her building.
The story is alternately told by Renee and Solange, a 12 year old girl who lives in Renee’s building. Solange is suffering from depression and plans to suicide on her 13th birthday. Solange also hides her intelligence from her family, who she judges as being superficial and unworthy of knowing her true self.
Renee and Solange’s worlds expand when a Japanese man, Monsieur Ozu, moves into their building and befriends them both. He immediately recognises that he and Renee have a great deal in common, as both love Tolstoy and Art. They become instant friends and appear to be ideally suited in their tastes. Renee blossoms with this friendship, and with Monsieur Ozu, expands on her knowledge of Japanese culture, which she adores. She eats Japanese foods, drinks Sake and admires the way he has decorated his apartment. Monsieur Ozu is far too good to be true, but since this is a novel, I was able to suspend my disbelief. I also found it funny that the French characters fetishized about Japan, while the rest of the world feel that way about France.
Solange and Renee also become friends, to both of their benefits. These unexpected friendships show why the character in The Little Paris Bookshop used this book to press the point to the other character that everybody is worthy of being loved.
The language is very formal. The book was written in French and translated into English, and my understanding is that French is quite a formal language. (I only know a few French words and they are all words for nice things to eat). Renee’s character is also a stickler for the use of correct grammar which adds to the formality of the story.
A great many philosophies and big ideas are explored in this book, which attempts to educate the reader in a way which reminded me of the massively popular Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder, although The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a more difficult read than Sophie’s World.
I enjoyed the last half of the story much more than the first, because by that time I had become fond of Renee. I didn’t much enjoy Solange or Renee’s philosophical meanderings, although if I were more interested in philosophy these sections might not have felt so heavy-handed.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog probably deserves a re-read because I was too tired to appreciate the formal language and the ideas properly on my first read. I’m guilty of skimming over the parts where the characters banged on about philosophy, but think that a slow, careful read would be the best way to approach this story.
*My self-confidence is fine.