The Elegance of the Hedgehog

33092233 Muriel Barbery’s novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog has me thinking about the ways plausibility and realism aren’t necessarily that important in fiction.  Sometimes, with certain kinds of books, yes, they are important, as some books set up an expectation that the events they describe could possibly happen and the characters in them are ones you could possibly meet. But sometimes all that is just beside the point, and I think that’s true in Barbery’s book.  As I read the first few pages I felt some resistance because the voices were unfamiliar and the feelings the characters described struck me as odd and unbelievable. But as I read on I began to change my mind, and by the time I reached the middle I was entirely won over and stayed won over all the way through.

There are two narrators in this novel, and the book moves back and forth between them. We start with Renée, a woman in her 50s who works as a concierge for a building populated by wealthy families. She looks and behaves exactly as people seem to expect a concierge will look and behave — dumpy, unattractive, slow, uneducated — but secretly she spends her free time reading literature and philosophy and watching art films. She is remarkably intelligent and knowledgeable, but is determined no one will ever find that out. She is lonely, with only one friend who visits her regularly, but she prefers to be lonely than to risk the kind of meaningful interaction with other people that terrifies her. So she puts on a blank face and mangles grammar whenever any of the building’s residents are nearby and labors her way through Edmund Husserl and phenomenology when she is alone.

The other narrator is one of the building’s residents; she is 12 year-old Paloma, also utterly brilliant, who hates her family, hates her prospects in life, and plans to kill herself on her thirteenth birthday. She has thought this through carefully and sees nothing else for it but suicide. She is a much-smarter version of Holden Caulfield — she sees the phoniness of the world around her and loathes the phony adults in her life, most particularly her mother and sister, and refuses to join in. Her narrative sections take two forms; one is made up of her “profound thoughts,” in which she records her best thinking so she can do something valuable with her life before it’s over, and the other is called “The Journal of the Movement of the World,” in which she makes a point of focusing on the body so as not to get too caught up in the mind. Here, she records moments of physical beauty.

Until fairly late in the book, these two characters know of each other only in the vaguest way, and they could hardly be more different in their place in life and their age and appearance, but they turn out to have similar preoccupations and ways of thinking. And here is where we get to the book’s real charm — the ideas these two characters explore and the meaning they try to make out of life. This is really a philosophical novel about the quest to understand how best to live, how to make meaning and find beauty, and how to reconcile the coexistence of beauty and suffering. What makes these ideas so interesting is that you come to care about the people thinking them — over the course of the novel their struggles move from abstract philosophical problems to vital personal ones that you feel you yourself have a stake in solving.

I loved the fact that this novel isn’t afraid to be a novel of ideas — it’s unabashedly philosophical. One of the things that makes it so interesting, I think, is that it combines passages of abstract thought with a focus on the physical world and sections that capture the comedy of bodily life. It never gets so abstract it leaves its real people with their real bodies behind. Renée is particularly amusing in this way; as long as she is caught up in her thoughts, she is comfortable, but as soon as anyone reminds her of her physical being, she is flustered and lost and messes everything up. Both narrators are exquisitely aware of the physical world around them, even if they aren’t always comfortable in it, so the book manages to be both cerebral and down-to-earth at once.

And the book is beautifully-written as well. The only criticism I’ve heard of this book that made me pay any attention at all is that its characters aren’t realistic, but given all the wonderful things to be found in this book, I don’t think that matters one bit.

20 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

20 responses to “The Elegance of the Hedgehog

  1. Ooh, I’m going to forward this wonderful review to my book group, as this book is our next selection! Thanks so much, now I can’t wait to read the book :)

  2. What an intriguing story! It definitely sounds like something I would like. Is an “unrealistic” character just a unique character?

  3. Sometimes ideas are best communicated through unrealistic characters. Thanks for a great review, Dorothy; this one is definitely going on my list!

  4. I definitely understood your comments about unbelievable characters. We, as readers, are willingly suspending our disbelief when we step into a novel. Authors have some responsibility to maintain that suspension, if they jar us out into the real world and away from the book, it is not our failing.

    Another type of character that gives me trouble is the one who is believable, but whom I don’t want to believe could exist. This is probably a failing of mine. I stopped reading the Left Behind books because I could see the characters in real life and it wasn’t a stretch at all, and I was horribly disturbed.

  5. None of the snippets that I heard about this book piqued my interest before now, but your post has made me want to read it! Unabashedly philosophical sounds very appealing. Thanks for the recommendation.

  6. You write about this book beautifully, Dorothy. I can’t wait to read it now.

  7. Your review makes me want to read this book and think about this issue of character. A believable character — to me anyone — is a character who makes sense, not a character whose actions are predictable. Anyway, I like the sound of this book very much. (And I love the title.)

  8. Very interesting – I’ve heard extremely mixed things about this book, but I also have it to read myself. I’m looking forward to it very much, after your wonderful review!

  9. Wonderful review. I was mildly interested in the book before, having heard good buzz about it, but now you have confirmed that this is one I need to read.

  10. I’ve already got this one on order but you’ve made me more excited about reading. Thanks for another great review. The heads-up about the characters is helpful, too. Since I know going in, hopefully that won’t bother me.

  11. Great review! This book is definitely on my TBR list.

  12. verbivore

    I’ll be reading this in a month or two for my book group and am curious to see what I will think, you make it sound very appealing but I’ve heard some criticism as well. Makes the whole reading experience much more interesting.

  13. Well, both you and Becky have me convinced: I need to read this one.

  14. Gentle Reader — well, I’m glad you found the review useful, and I can’t wait to hear what you and your book group thought!

    Debby — I’d say the characters are unique to the point where they border on being unrealistic. Okay, that doesn’t quite make sense, as unique is an absolute quality and therefore no one can be unique “to a point,” but I think it’s a least a point that’s open to debate. If you do read it, I definitely want to know what you think!

    Jenclair — I hope you like it! I agree that sometimes realism just isn’t the most important thing.

    Bikkuri — yes, they have a responsibility to make the world they create compelling and believable in its own way, but I think there is a whole range of ways to do that, and not all of them involve creating characters we are likely to meet.

    Kate — well, I’m pleased I was able to pique your interest! And I hope you like it if you do decide to read it.

    Danielle — thank you! I think you will enjoy it — and I’d love to know what you think.

    Bloglily — well, the characters in this book made sense to me. I think it’s highly unlikely we will ever meet people like them, but they have their own internal logic to them that I never doubted.

    Litlove — there’s nothing like mixed reviews to get one interested, right? I can see that it’s likely there are plenty of people who wouldn’t like this book, but it really worked for me!

    Stefanie — I’m guessing you would like it (although it’s hard to tell — it’s the kind of book it’s hard to predict how people will react to it). I’d love to know what you think!

    Lisa — how fun that you have it on the way to you! I hope you enjoy it, and yeah, I’d recommend putting the issue of plausibility behind you and just enjoying who the people are.

    Iliana — I’m glad to know you plan on reading it! I hope you like it.

    Verbivore — I think this book would make an excellent book group choice. I might mention it to one of my groups, in fact. I’m very much looking forward to reading about your response to it!

    Emily — good, Becky and I have done our jobs then :)

  15. Ah yes, I suppose the unrealistic character is fine, so long as they are internally consistent. It’s those jarring, “Wait, she would never do that!” moments that are so destructive.

  16. I just wanted to add that I’m equally intrigued by this book now. I really like the way it seems to blend philosophy with physicality (an exploration of mind / body dualism maybe). Great review.

  17. Bikkuri — yeah, that’s exactly it. And I never felt such a moment in the Hedgehog book.

    Couchtrip — oh, I think this is a book you’d like! Yes, it has lots to say about the relationship of mind and body.

  18. We will be discussing this book in our couple’s book club. As a side note: I’m going to ask members to write a haiku :) should be interesting.

  19. mel

    What I liked best about this book was its depiction of how a love and life time of reading can transform a person. It is a great book for those who love the reading life.

  20. I just finished the book. You’re spot on in your defence of its ‘unrealistic’ characters. I think we should treat this as a modern day fable, it’s pure imaginary fiction. We can’t be too serious and literal in our interpreting the characters because such a perspective can make us overly judgemental, blocking us from fully appreciating and enjoying the book. Although I may not fully agree with the characters’ views, I was thoroughly entertained by the story. Thanks for your insightful review!

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