The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

2009 (audio).  High Bridge Audio.  8 discs. 9.5 hrs

Translation (2008) by Alison Anderson

Readers: Barbara Rosenblat as Renee and Cassandra Morris as Paloma.

In a nutshell:

Renee Michel is the concierge at a Parisian apartment building inhabited by the rich and pretentious.  She keeps up a dull facade to the tenants but has an active life of the mind, fueled by philosophy books, Tolstoy and Japanese films.  Paloma Josse is a 12 year old girl whose family resides in the building.  She too is very intelligent but despairs of finding meaning to life.

When a kind and observant Japanese gentleman moves into a recently vacated flat in their building, his friendship with both Paloma and Renee will cause them to reassess their view of life.


Have you ever listened to a person rant about how only he or she sees the world clearly, and all other people are mindless sheep?  I’ve mostly encountered this sort of person on the internet, especially in the comment sections of news articles.  (One of the many reasons why one should avoid the online comment sections of news articles – it’s better for the blood pressure.)

Renee and Paloma remind me of that person.  The beginning of the book, especially, is riddled with almost-misanthropic musings.  The introduction of the inperturbably gentle Mr. Ozu as a character was a welcome reprieve to all the bitterness.  Also Renee and Paloma’s commentary on the world around them softens as a result of their acquaintance with Mr. Ozu.  I was definitely a fan of Mr. Ozu.  He reminds me of those awesome souls who approach relationships simply and without pretense, who seem never to have heard of the word ‘angst.’

I was not an overall fan of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, however.  A major portion of the book consists of either Renee or Paloma’s inner discourse on a subject or insight into an observed event.  I don’t object to this rambling style in and of itself, but the content better be worth dragging the reader down into it.  Unfortunately, I did not find the content to be all that illuminating or intriguing.  Yes, there were some passages that I did enjoy, but mostly they teetered on being tedious.  I think I would have managed worse in print.  Both audio book narrators were very capable and this helped me through the long-winded nature of their characters’ inner monologues.

Barbery’s decision to throw some abrupt and unnecessary drama into the ending further soured me on the book.  Throughout the book, the characters are defined by their grasp of subtlety in an obtuse world.  The plot twist at the end seemed decidedly unsubtle in its play for the reader’s emotions.

I’m glad I finished the book, if only so I can throw my opinion into the mixed bag of responses to The Elegance of the Hedgehog.

Other reviews:

books i done read – hilarious (negative) review that is too spoiler-iffic to quote here.

Shelf Love – “I understand that the author is a professor of philosophy. This shows in the elegance with which she discusses ideas. But she is also a writer who gives us a lovely story peopled with interesting characters, and manages to tug at our heartstrings, too.”

Vulpes Libris – “At times, these [digressions] read like a rather transparent vehicle for the author’s pet subjects . . . and the integrity of the characters’ voices sometimes suffers as a result.”


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10 responses to “The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

  1. This was more or less my exact reaction. My eyes got sleepy. I didn’t bother reading the other book she wrote with some of the same characters.

  2. LOL! A tedious rant! That is exactly how I felt! I agree that there were some interesting passages, but I hated the characters and became bored by their endless whinging. We’re on the same page with this one 🙂

  3. Lord, does this sound tedious! Thanks for the heads up–I’ll avoid it.

  4. My book club read this in October and I have to say that I couldn’t even get past the first 50 pages or so. Everyone else kind of loved it and said there was a big payoff at the end, but it didn’t sound like much of a payoff to me.

  5. This is one of those books that I go back and forth on. So many mixed reviews…I just can’t decide so I may just have to read it for myself 🙂 Thanks for sharing!!

  6. Jenny – If I had read it in print, I would have found my eyes getting sleepy too I think. Fortunately, that is not the reaction I had to the audio book, as that would have had a deleterious affect on my driving!

    Jackie – I read your review after I wrote my post and was glad to see that I was not alone in my overall dislike of the book.

    Lit Omnivore – Glad the review was useful!

    Daphne – It’s true that the book improves later on, with the introduction of Mr. Ozu, but if you didn’t like the inner monologues at the start, you probably won’t find them more interesting later on.

    Samantha – That’s how I felt too – that I just needed to find out for myself. At least this way, you know that whichever way your opinion falls, you’ll have company. 🙂

  7. Sorry to know that you didn’t like ‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’ much, Christy. I read it earlier this year and I have to confess that I loved it. Though it was rambling, as you have put it and had a lot of inner monologues of Renee and Paloma, I liked reading about their thoughts and ideas, eventhough some of them were cynical (‘misanthropic’ as you have put it :)) I agree with you on the ending of the book – the twist was unnecessary and it didn’t go with the rest of the book – and by that time I had got attached to the characters and so as a reader it was sad and frustrating for me.

  8. I couldn’t finish this book. I really wanted to, but I just couldn’t. In fact, it gave me bad book mojo for a couple of months.

  9. Vishy: I’m glad to hear you say – as someone who loved the book – that you also didn’t like the twist at the end. It really did seem not in keeping with the tone of the rest of the book.

    Carin – Is bad book mojo when you seem stuck in a string of unsatisfying books? Or like something that happened to me once, where every book I picked up lost my interest and I couldn’t finish it. Either way, that’s terrible!

  10. Pingback: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery | Iris on Books

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