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The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

Elegance of the Hedgehog book coverIn The Elegance of the Hedgehog you get a glimpse into the musings of both a secretly intelligent 54 year old woman who is playing the role of the “old, ugly and sour” concierge of a well-to-do residence in Paris and an overprivileged suicidal 12 year old tenant. These two kindred souls are trying to find art and beauty in the world.

From the Publisher

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.Continue reading...

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.

Book Club Ideas

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is set in Paris but there is a lot of Japanese influence in the book. In planning my post I decided to head to the Japanese Tea Garden in our city for inspiration. Unfortunately I forgot it was February. And we just had snow.

Japanese Tea Garden

You can imagine how beautiful this garden is in the springtime.

One part of Japanese culture talked about in The Elegance of the Hedgehog is the manga, the Japanese comic book. I was surprised to see my library had a whole manga display in the teen section. Place these books around the room for your guests to enjoy…they are entertaining!

Manga, Japanese Comic

A flower that plays an important role in The Elegance of the Hedgehog is the camellia. Camellias can be included in your decorations.

Renee, the concierge of the Paris residence, has a fondness for great literature. She tests whether works of literature are truly great by using the cherry plum test. As she tastes a cherry plum, she starts to read a book. “If each resists the powerful onslaught of the other, if the cherry plum fails to make me doubt the text and if the text is unable to spoil the fruit, then I know that I am in the presence of a worthwhile and, why not say it, exceptional undertaking.”

Plum test, great literature, elegance of the hedgehog

That particular War and Peace book is one of my favorites. It was published in 1955 and belonged to my dad. There are watermarks on it from when he used to read in the bathtub (with 9 kids that was probably the only place in the house he could find any peace and quiet.) Can you believe paperbacks used to be 50¢!

War and Peace by Tolstoy, watermarks

The 12 year old Paloma is searching for a reason to make life worth living. As two dog walkers tried to pull their copulating dogs apart, one fell causing her body to twist in unnatural ways. She compared it to a Bacon that was hanging in her parents’ bathroom. She said “Okay, a Bacon came to life before my very eyes, does that make it worth it?” She finally finds meaning in a rosebud falling to the table. “Oh my gosh, I thought, does this mean that this is how we must live our lives? Constantly poised between beauty and death, between movement and its disappearance?”

Rosebud, Francis Bacon, Elegance of the Hedgehog


To Renee the most beautiful music for the human voice on earth is from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas.

Music, Purcell, Dido and Aeneas

Just when you have Renee pegged as an intellectual snob, she busts out a line from an Eminem song. I am not 100% certain, but I think the song is Remember Me?.

Eminem Album, Elegance of the Hedgehog


Book Club Menu

“Then let us drink a cup of tea. Silence descends, one hears the wind outside, autumn leaves rustle and take flight, the cat sleeps in a warm pool of light. And, with each swallow, time is sublimed.”

Paloma thinks coffee is a nasty person’s drink and she prefers to drink jasmine tea.

Elegance of the Hedgehog, Tea, Chocolate Florentines

Paloma believes French cuisine is pitiful “when it isn’t heavy, it’s as fussy as can be: you’re dying of hunger and before you are three stylized radishes and two scallops in a seaweed gelée served on pseudo-Zen plates by waiters who look as joyful as undertakers.”

So for the main meal, I would recommend Japanese food. Some of the Japanese foods mentioned in The Elegance of the Hedgehog include ramen, gyozas stuffed with coriander and delicately spiced meat, zalu ramen (a dish of cold noodles with a slightly sweet sauce which gave the aroma of peanuts and marinated cucumber). Steamy Kitchen has a beautiful post on how to make gyoza, which are pan-fried dumplings. La Fuji Mama also has a marinated cucumber recipe.

I would reserve the French fare for desserts. Renee’s friend makes amazing French pastries including Almond Tuiles, Almond Sponge Fingers, Dark Chocolate Florentines, and Madeleines. You could serve a selection of store-bought pastries as well.

almond tuiles,chocolate croissants,almond sponge fingers,chocolate florentines

Book Club Resources

Ratings at the time this post was published

Goodreads: 3.72 (105,724 ratings)

Amazon: 3.8 stars (1,094 ratings)

LibraryThing: 3.8 stars (2,760 ratings)

My rating: 4 stars. I took me a little while to get into the book but as I got to know the characters I started to love it. This is one I will read again to really reflect on Paloma’s and Renee’s musings on life. And bravo for the gutsy ending.

Book Reviews

  • “A posh building in rue de Grenelle (Paris), its days recounted from two points of view, one belonging to a cultured concierge, the other to a little rich girl with suicidal tendencies. Add some caustic humor, philosophical discourses, and an oversize adoration of Japanese culture an you have the ingredients of a novel that plays merrily with stereotypes, quotes Proust, Eminem, and Husserl, and has surprised everyone by remaining at the top of the French bestseller lists for month” – La Repubblica (Italy)
  • “Astute social satire and abstruse German philosophy are rarely found together, but here they are in this ingenious work of fiction” – The Boston Globe
  • “I will say without hesitation that Elegance of the Hedgehog will be included on my list of best books I have read this year–it is that good.” – Reviews by Lola

Book Club Discussion

Spoiler Alert: Discussion guide may contain spoilers to the book.

1. True life is elsewhere…
One French critic called The Elegance of the Hedgehog “the ultimate celebration of every person’s invisible part.” How common is the feeling that a part of oneself is invisible to or ignored by others? How much does this “message” contribute to the book’s popularity? Why is it sometimes difficult to show people what we really are and to have them appreciate us for it?

2. This book will save your life…
The Elegance of the Hedgehog has been described as “a toolbox one can look into to resolve life’s problems,” a “life-transforming read,” and a “life-affirming book.” Do you feel this is an accurate characterization of the novel? If so, what makes it thus: the story told, the characters and their ruminations, something else? Can things like style, handsome prose, well-turned phrases, etc. add up to a life-affirming book independently of the story told? To put it another way—Renée Michel’s way—can an encounter with pure beauty change our lives?

3. —a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet. Both Renée and Paloma use stereotypes to their benefit, hiding behind the perceptions others have of their roles. Our understanding and appreciation of people is often limited to a superficial acknowledgement of their assigned roles, their social monikers—single mother, used car salesman, jock, investment banker, senior citizen, cashier… While we are accustomed to thinking of people as victims of stereotypes, is it possible that sometimes stereotypes can be useful? When, under what circumstances, and why, might we welcome an interpretation based on stereotypes of our actions or of who we are? Have you ever created a mise en place that conforms to some stereotype in order to hide a part of yourself?

4. “One of the strengths I derive from my class background is that I am accustomed to contempt.” (Dorothy Allison)
Some critics call this novel a book about class. Barbery herself called Renée Michel, among other things, a vehicle for social criticism. Yet for many other readers and reviewers this aspect is marginal. In your reading, how integral is social critique to the novel? What kind of critique is made? Many pundits were doubtful about the book’s prospects in the US for this very reason: a critique of French class-based society, however charming it may be, cannot succeed in a classless society. Is the US really a classless society? Are class prejudices and class boundaries less pronounced in the US than in other countries? Are the social critique elements in the book relevant to American society?
Read more . . .

5. Hope I die before I get old…
Paloma, the book’s young protagonist, tells us that she plans to commit suicide on the day of her thirteenth birthday. She cannot tolerate the idea of becoming an adult, when, she feels, one inevitably renounces ideals and subjugates passions and principles to pragmatism. Must we make compromises, renounce our ideals, and betray our youthful principles when we become adults? If so, why? Do these compromises and apostasies necessarily make us hypocrites? At the end of the book, has Paloma re-evaluated her opinion of the adult world or confirmed it?

6. Kigo: the 500 season words…
Famously, the Japanese language counts twelve distinct seasons during the year, and in traditional Japanese poetry there are five hundred words to characterize different stages and attributes assigned to the seasons. As evidenced in its literature, art, and film, Japanese culture gives great attention to detail, subtle changes, and nuances. How essential is Kakuro’s being Japanese to his role as the character that reveals others’ hidden affinities? Or is it simply his fact of being an outsider that matters? Could he hail from Tasmania and have the same impact on the story?

7. Circumstances maketh the woman…
Adolescent children and the poor are perhaps those social groups most prone to feel themselves trapped in situations that they cannot get out of, that they did not choose, and that condition their entire outlook. Some readers have baulked at the inverse snobbery with which the main characters in The Elegance of the Hedgehog initially seem to view the world around them and the people who inhabit it. Is this disdain genuine or a well-honed defence mechanism provoked by their circumstances? If the later, can it therefore be justified? Do Renée’s and Paloma’s views of the world and the people who surround them change throughout the book? Would Paloma and Renée be more prone to fraternal feelings if their circumstances were different?

8. “Unprovided with original learning, unformed in the habits of thinking, unskilled in the arts of composition, I resolved to write a book.” (Edward Gibbon)
In one of the book’s early chapters, Renée describes what it is like to be an autodidact. “There are days when I feel I have been able to grasp all there is to know in one single gaze, as if invisible branches suddenly spring out of nowhere, weaving together all the disparate strands of my reading—and then suddenly the meaning escapes, the essence evaporates, and no matter how often I reread the same lines, they seem to flee ever further with each subsequent reading, and I see myself as some mad old fool who thinks her stomach is full because she’s been attentively reading the menu. Apparently this combination of ability and blindness is a symptom exclusive to the autodidact.” How accurately does this describe sensations common to autodidacts? What are the advantages and disadvantages of being self-taught?

9. The Philosopher’s Stone…
Much has been made of the book’s philosophical bent. Some feel that the author’s taste for philosophy and her having woven philosophical musings into her characters’ ruminations, particularly those of Renée, hampers the plot; others seem to feel that it is one of the book’s most appealing attributes. What effect did the philosophical elements in this book have on you and your reading? Can you think of other novels that make such overt philosophical references? Which, and how does Hedgehog resemble or differ from them?

10. A Bridge across Generations…
Renée is fifty-four years old. Paloma, the book’s other main character, is twelve. Yet much of the book deals with these two ostensibly different people discovering their elective affinities. How much is this book about the possibilities of communication across generations? And what significance might the fact that Renée is slightly too old to be Paloma’s mother, and slightly too young to be her grandmother have on this question of intergenerational communication?

11. Some stories are universal…
The Elegance of the Hedgehog has been published in thirty-five languages, in over twenty-five countries. It has been a bestseller in France, Spain, Germany, Italy, South Korea, and America. In many other countries, while it may not have made the bestseller lists, it nonetheless has enjoyed considerable success. In the majority of these cases, success has come despite modest marketing, despite the author’s reticence to appear too often in public, and her refusal to appear in television, and despite relatively limited critical response. The novel has reached millions of readers largely thanks to word-of-mouth. What, in your opinion, makes this book so appealing to people? And why, even when compared to other beloved and successful books, is this one a book that people so frequently talk about, recommend to their friends, and give as gifts? And what, if anything, does the book’s international success say about the universality of fictional stories today?

12. “…a text written above all to be read and to arouse emotions in the reader.”
In a related question, The Elegance of the Hedgehog has been described as a “book for readers” as opposed to a book for critics, reviewers, and professors. What do you think is meant by this? And, if the idea is that it is a book that pleases readers but not critics, do you think this could be true? If so, why?

(Discussion Questions from Penguin Group USA)

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About the Author

From the Muriel Barbery fansite: Muriel Barbery was born May 28th, 1969 in Casablanca, Morocco. She was raised in France. She 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. She currently lives in Japan with her husband Stéphane. She is a French novelist and professor of philosophy. She has written two books that have been translated into English, Gourmet Rhapsody (original title Une Gourmandise, 2000) and The Elegance of the Hedgehog (original title: L’Élégance du hérisson, 2006).

I love this quote by Muriel Barbery: “I have to make a confession: I never think of the reader as I write. Writing is an intimate, almost secret, activity. I only follow with my pen my own sensations and desires.”

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