The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Title: The Elegance of The Hedgehog
Author: Muriel Barbery
Published: 2006 by Editions Gallimard, Paris (2008 by Europa Editions)
Number of pages: 325
Rating: 5 out of 5

When you see a book being praised all over the web do you ever think: “It’s either going to be great, or one of the most disappointing books I’ve read in my life.” ? That’s how I felt about The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which turned out to be great, and this book. Which is also great. If you can read it with a dictionary at hand.

It amazes me that a book with such a high level of vocabulary words has been such a bestseller. When a plethora of readers seem to be picking up the likes of Danielle Steele and Nora Roberts, judging from their book sales, it makes me wonder how many are left who can understand page one of Muriel’s. The first page alone had words like this:

  • eructation: an act or instance of belching
  • deleterious: harmful often in a subtle or unexpected way

But, maybe that makes me sound as snobby about my reading as Muriel’s heroine, Renee, appears to be about her own. She calls herself an ‘autodidact’, a person who is self taught. Incongruous as her position of concierge may be, because she has read Tolstoy and listened to Mozart’s Requiem, she secretly scorns the rich who inhabit her building. Much as I do the nouveau riche who have moved into our city, because as anyone knows, money alone does not make you smart. Or kind. Or honorable.

Sharing in her scorn is the younger daughter of a family also living in her building. It’s as though we are listening to a version of The Emperor’s New Clothes when we read the thoughts of these two characters. They blatantly name the charade that the rich have ensconced themselves in, while reveling in the joy that the pleasure of hazelnut chocolate, or pastries with tea, can afford.

Hidden within their hearts, though, are terrible burdens: of not being strong enough to help those who need it, of being afraid you will die if you don’t stay where you belong, of staging your own punishment.

In this complex novel, which examines the heart, I found myself deeply moved when reading the experiences of an outcast. It makes me wonder if we aren’t all, to some degree, strangers in this land. Or, hedgehogs of our own.

Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog; on the outside, she’s covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary-and terribly elegant. (p. 143)