The Elegance of the Hedgehog – Muriel Barbery

I have started this year off with a bang so far!! I am reading one amazing book after another!! I am reading them so fast I cannot keep up with my posts.

I am in love with this book! The Elegance of the Hedgehog, written by Muriel Barbery.  It was so compelling and thought provoking, hence why it took me longer than usual to read. After every page I had to pause for reflection.

Muriel draws you into the character’s world; you are completely consumed by them.

The story is told by two different characters, one is Renée Michel, a concierge at 7 Rue de Grenelle, an upper-class apartment building, where she spends her time hiding from the bourgeois families she works for.

Renée is a closeted intellectual. Over the past decades she cultivated a careful persona of low-class stupidity. She uses little tricks that fool everyone around her because (and this is a big theme in the book) no one is really looking. She buys delicate food and bags it below the junk everyone expects her to eat (which she then feeds to her cat) and she leaves the TV on in her living room while she retires to the back room to read a good book or watch art cinema.

Paloma is a gifted kid who no one understands. In a way, she’s a closeted intellectual too, because in her family it’s her sister who’s “the smart one” as well as “the social one”, while Paloma likes quiet and solitude. She’s not a happy kid and has decided – very rationally, with no fuss – to set her apartment on fire on her 13th birthday (while making sure no one is home), and then kill herself.

Paloma believes she is too advanced for this world, and that she cannot connect with anyone, because their passions and interests are too far beneath her. She believes that children her age, are too childish and they cannot communicate on the same level.

Both narrators rule over alternated chapters, consisting mostly of their thoughts on books, beauty, art, camellias, grammar, the people around them, and philosophy (the real stuff, quoting Kant and Descartes). Around these complex mental lives, the building’s other inhabitants behave in their usual snobbish and generally superficial way, with occasional  glimpses of humanity. It becomes very interesting and slightly voyeuristic to see their comings and going trough the eyes of an intellectual concierge and a sharp 12-year-old.

Both narrators are detached by font style, so you can keep them separate. Paloma’s chapters are written as journal entries and as other philosophical reflections.

Barbery incorporates several themes into the novel. References to philosophy, for instance, abound throughout, getting increasingly dense as the story progresses. Barbery confesses to having “followed a long, boring course of studies in philosophy”, and comments that “I expected it to help me understand better that which surrounds me: but it didn’t work out that way. Literature has taught me more. I was interested in exploring the bearing philosophy could really have on one’s life, and how. I wanted to illuminate this process. That’s where the desire to anchor philosophy to a story, a work of fiction, was born: to give it more meaning, make it more physically real, and render it, perhaps, even entertaining.”

Themes of class consciousness and conflict are also present in the book. Critics interpreted the stance the novel took against French class-based discrimination and hypocrisy as quite radical, although some French critics found that this made the novel an unsubtle satire of fading social stereotypes. There are also literary allusions in the novel, referencing comic books, movies, music, and paintings.

Even though I was reaching for my dictionary on a couple of occasions to track down the definitions of the profound words that Barbery used in book, I still was in love with everything about it.

I hope you ENJOY this as much as I did!

(Sources: The Sleepless Reader and Wikipedia)

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