The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
In 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.
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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 Party Ideas for The Elegance of the Hedgehog
The Elegance of the Hedgehog is set in Paris but there is a lot of Japanese influence in the book. A Japanese tea garden would be a great location to discuss this book.
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!
A flower that plays an important role in The Elegance of the Hedgehog is the camellia. Camellia products include a plant, plate, mug and vase.
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.”
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?”
To Renee the most beautiful music for the human voice on earth is from Purcell’s 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?.
Book Club Menu for Elegance of the Hedgehog
“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.|
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.
Book Club Resources
Ratings at the time this post was published
Goodreads: 3.66 (17,811 ratings)
Amazon: 3.5 stars (411 ratings)
Barnes and Noble: 4 stars (197 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.
- “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 for The Elegance of the Hedgehog
Europa editions, the publisher for The Elegance of the Hedgehog, has an excellent discussion guide which includes an interview with Muriel Barbery.
Purchase Elegance of the Hedgehog at your favorite bookseller
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 in an interview on Book Browse. “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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