Some colors are too vivid to explain. Some paintings have a beauty that can hardly be captured by mere words. And The Elegance of the Hedgehog has beauty and elegance that transcends most known standards, and it’s excellently translated by Alison Anderson. It is clever, sensuous, and invites us to deep pondering of issues of fundamental importance in a setting of satire, humor, warmth and compassion.
This highly celebrated and praised novel has sold more than one million copies in France alone. And it has been a great success all over Europe. It is a very French novel, with strange and unlikely but likable characters and full of reflections on the nature of beauty and art and the meaning of life and death. It is written, of course, by an author well versed in Kant and Sartre and who seemingly is no stranger to Being and Nothingness.
The strange and moving tale takes place mostly within the confines of an exclusive apartment building in Paris. The tenants are wealthy Parisians. It’s a place where families have lived seemingly forever and know one another well – almost too well
The Elegance of the Hedgehog has two “heroines” who write diaries: One is a concierge, the other a suicidal adolescent. Only they are more – so much more. They don’t exactly fit those categories. Unless you are used to concierges that describe themselves like Renée does: “I correspond so very well to what social prejudice has collectively construed to be a typical French concierge that I am one of the multiple cogs that make the great universal illusion turn, the illusion according to which life has a meaning that can be easily deciphered.” I am not used to that. And, yes, she is very intelligent and an autodidact. Of course. And she reads Tolstoy and philosophy, yet likes Blade Runner. So now you know the type.
The other heroine, Paloma, is 12. She is suicidal (how French!) and hyper intelligent. Of the kind that records of “Profound Thoughts” in a diary. She is so disgusted by the world that she has decided to kill herself on her 13th birthday. But she is also a child.
Paloma and Renee have a mutual friend. He is a mysterious, wealthy Japanese man who moves into the building. His name is Monsieur Ozu.
The book moves back and forth between the two diaries of the heroines, with a little real life here and there. So it’s a book of reflections, views and pondering, and also of convergence. I am not sure why it is so compelling, and why it drew me into this universe as it did – but it works on you almost like gravity, you don’t feel it, but even so you are actually in its influence.
It’s quite surprising that such a strange tale can move readers so much, but it does. It’s a tale that touches you. Not a tale that leaves you happy – for there is no happy, sunshine and they-lived-happily-ever-after ending here, but a tale that transfers you into thinking or pondering state. It simply is one of those rare books that touch your inner being and finds you weak spots – it may make you smile while crying – just as excellent food seem to find some taste buds all of its own that you never knew you even had. Before you ate it, that is.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog is heartwarming tale and a book to read, ponder, sense and savor.
Praise for this wonderful book:
The Elegance of the Hedgehog ..belongs to a distinct subgenre: the accessible book that flatters readers with its intellectual veneer… Even when the novel is most essayistic, the narrators’ kinetic minds and engaging voices .. propel us ahead.” –The New York Times – Caryn James
[Renee Michel and Paloma Josse] provide the double narrative of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, and you will … fall in love with both. — The Washington Post – Michael Dirda
The formula that made more than half a million readers in France fall in love with this book has, among other ingredients: intelligent humor, fine sentiments, an excellent literary and philosophical backdrop, good taste, sophistication and substance. –La Repubblica
Nobody ever imagined that this tender, funny book with a philosophical vein would have enjoyed such incredible success. For some, it is part Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder, part Monsieur Malaussene by Daniel Pennac. –Le Monde
Enthusiastically recommended for anyone who loves books that grow quietly and then blossom suddenly. — Marie Claire (France)
“Barbery’s sly wit, which bestows lightness on the most ponderous cogitations, keeps her tale aloft.” – The New Yorker
Despite its cutesy air of chocolate-box Paris, The Elegance of the Hedgehog is, by the end, quite radical in its stand against French classism and hypocrisy. … an admirable novel which deserves as wide a readership here as it had in France.” – Viv Groskop, The Observer