The Elegance of the Hedgehog

(L'Elegeance du Herisson)

by Muriel Barbery

Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog
translated by Alison Anderson

Children's book review by L.D. Rafey.

(Learn about L.D.'s own book.)

Young Adult

Hope and healing and Frenchness!

“It’s all well and good to have profound thoughts on a regular basis, but I think it’s not enough. Well, I mean: I’m going to commit suicide and set the house on fire in a few months; obviously I can’t assume I have time at my disposal, therefore I have to do something substantial with the little I do have.”

Meet Paloma Josse, a precociously intelligent 12 year old who, even from the limited perspective of an abbreviated lifetime, has already determined that an unforgivingly dull and meaningless future lay ahead.

And, if you are able to read her thoughts or happen to look over her shoulder as she records them in her “Journal of the Movement of the World No. 1,” you might just wonder whether she is intent on action or perhaps is simply in search of a challenge, an idea, a magic moment in time in which someone or something might materialize to change her mind; some occurrence that will give her life that special meaning she is unable to discover for herself.

Hidden away in the same apartment building is its concierge, Renée Michel, a fifty-something, self-described stereotypical working-class nobody who believes that the upper classes think that people like herself “experience human emotions with less intensity and greater indifference” and who, like Paloma, is equally gifted with a discerning intuition.

Both share two sentiments: Their contempt for mediocrity and their love for the momentary but bewitching flare of aesthetic beauty and, both, believing that they must hide their true substance from the world at large; have inadvertently concealed their hearts, becoming inextricably trapped within the confines of their reflective consciousness, rendering them less perceptive abut themselves than about the world around them.

The human race is a fellowship of suffering. Suffering, betrayal, pain, loss, disappointment seem eternally present. But then, as we like so often to remind ourselves, if not somewhat speculatively, there is hope and there is healing. The Elegance of the Hedgehog, first published in French in 2006 as L’Elegeance du Herisson, then reprinted in English in 2008 by French author, Muriel Barbery, is a novel about hope and healing.

Two people at odds with themselves; who differ as much in their individual backgrounds as in their ages never the less, through the fortuitous arrival of the mysterious Mr. Ozu, manage to make the essential connection with one another; a connection that leads to self-realization; the kind of realization that most of us, especially young adults, seek with such passion … but with little direction or guidance.

Throughout The Elegance of the Hedgehog, the individual narrations contend privately with this and other bedeviling issues. Through the alternating thoughts of its two main characters, the reader is enabled to artfully negotiate this philosophical maze.

The solution is subtly depicted by the aesthetic eye of the artist as it manages to capture the sublime, albeit transient, elegance of life’s most prosaic and prickly details (even as banal as a flushing toilet!) so often overlooked by the undiscerning eye. But what emerges is the concept that there is an art to living … and perhaps to dying as well; an art that helps to both illuminate the nature of our solitary suffering and to alleviate the pressure that accompanies our private torment.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is not for everyone. It ranks among the better books I have read, perhaps not the best but certainly the most unusual. Nor is it an ‘easy read.’ It does require thought and introspection and is intended for those starved for intellectual over emotional stimulation, which is perhaps why it was such a winner among European youngsters. It is not a read for children under 12 and certainly not for those wishing only to be entertained.

Read more of L.D.'s children's book reviews.

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