This review is part of our Goodreads, Love Yourshelf bookclub and our ongoing Book Reviews project.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog
Author: Muriel Barbery
Translated from French into English by Alison Anderson
The French novelist and philosophy teacher, Muriel Barbery wrote The Elegance of the Hedgehog in 2006. It became a New York Times bestseller and a beloved book among readers beyond its French borders. Part of this surely lies in Barbery’s seemingly effortless capability to explore the meaning and joy behind life’s simplicity. Set in Paris within a posh, upper-class hôtel particulier, the world is seen through the brilliant minds of two seemingly forgettable people who both live in the hôtel particulier. They view the world as it is, with its many unpleasant and uncomfortable realities, yet also full of simple, refreshing moments of beauty.
There is Madame Renee Michel, a 50-something who dutifully plays the role of what she believes is expected of her: an unrefined, dumb, and grumpy widow concierge of the hôtel particulier. But that is exactly what she is not. Behind the mask she has easily donned for 27 years, she is an autodidact who watches Japanese films, is up to par on philosophers such as Marx and William of Ockham, and has a cat named after Leo Tolstoy. We enter into her life just as she is letting her facade crack, with subtle hints appearing now and again, almost revealing her true intellectual nature.
The Hedgehog’s second heroine is just a twelve-year-old little girl. Paloma Josse is the youngest daughter of the Josse family. She spends a good deal of her time seeking solitude and quiet within her home (which proves to be difficult), contemplating the world and people around her, and planning her death by suicide upon her thirteenth birthday. She is an extraordinarily perceptive intellectual but pretends both at school and at home to not be as clever as she really is.
The charm of this book is its simplicity. It seems like a grandiose task to find out what makes life worth living, and Barbery does it through two logical, unassuming characters. Barbery chose to present each of her heroine’s narratives within alternating short chapters. Oftentimes, there is a common theme within the chapters, with characters overlapping or similar philosophical contemplation occurring. While they may appear to be from two very different backgrounds and worlds, the two heroines are rather more alike than not. But these parallel themes also serve to drive the narratives and plot ahead smoothly and quickly. The quick chapters, like a quick thought, are hard to just close off; they beg to be read and explored further. The other characters who appear in and out of the novel are largely the antithesis of the protagonists; however halfway through the novel, someone moves into the hôtel particulier who piques the interest of both the heroines.
Renee and Paloma, while very much rooted and part of a real-world, are two characters who surely must not actually exist, giving an almost fantastical element to the story.Yet the possibility there may be a philosophical concierge just like Renee, or there is a little girl who argues that grammar gives beauty to language just as Paloma does, somehow seems exceptionally likely. Barbery manages to do this by mixing into their inner contemplative dialogues the need to find meaning, and the drive to search for beauty in life. Because isn’t that what much of humanity concerns itself with? Figuring out our place and role in the world, and perhaps having been utterly disillusioned by (as Paloma would say), the adult world? The concerns and questions put forth by the heroines are so relatable that both the unlikely existence of a Renee and of a Paloma, suddenly becomes a real possibility.
This book, especially during the time of COVID-19 is an utterly delightful read. Throughout the entirety, it is a pleasure, but it is not without a bittersweetness and a certain poignancy that ends up nearly perfectly encapsulating a truism of life, that life is full of unexpected turns. But even amidst harshness, sorrow, and inequity, the beauty of life endures in small things, as Renee discovers when drinking tea:
“The tea ritual: such a precise repetition of the same gestures and the same tastes; accession to simple, authentic and refined sensations, a license given to all, at little cost, to become aristocrats of taste, because tea is the beverage of the wealthy and of the poor; the tea ritual, therefore, has the extraordinary virtue of introducing into the absurdity of our lives an aperture of serene harmony. Yes, the world may aspire to vacuousness, lost souls mourn beauty, insignificance surrounds us. Then let us drink a cup of tea.”