Book Review: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

TheEleganceOfTheHedgehogCoverOfficial Synopsis from Goodreads: A moving, funny, triumphant novel that exalts the quiet victories of the inconspicuous among us.

We are in the center of Paris, in an elegant apartment building inhabited by bourgeois families. Renée, the concierge, is witness to the lavish but vacuous lives of her numerous employers. Outwardly she conforms to every stereotype of the concierge: fat, cantankerous, addicted to television. Yet, unbeknownst to her employers, Renée is a cultured autodidact who adores art, philosophy, music, and Japanese culture. With humor and intelligence she scrutinizes the lives of the building’s tenants, who for their part are barely aware of her existence.

Then there’s Paloma, a twelve-year-old genius. She is the daughter of a tedious parliamentarian, a talented and startlingly lucid child who has decided to end her life on the sixteenth of June, her thirteenth birthday. Until then she will continue behaving as everyone expects her to behave: a mediocre pre-teen high on adolescent subculture, a good but not an outstanding student, an obedient if obstinate daughter.

Paloma and Renée hide both their true talents and their finest qualities from a world they suspect cannot or will not appreciate them. They discover their kindred souls when a wealthy Japanese man named Ozu arrives in the building. Only he is able to gain Paloma’s trust and to see through Renée’s timeworn disguise to the secret that haunts her. This is a moving, funny, triumphant novel that exalts the quiet victories of the inconspicuous among us.

Genre: Literary fiction
Setting: Modern-day Paris
My copy came from: I had a used paperback.

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Review: Pretentious and devastating, but I’m glad that I read it! The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a different book. Translated from the French, there were definitely some cultural references that I, as an American, did not understand at all, but there were also common human elements that really came across at the end. This was a book club read for me, and had it not been a book club read, I doubt I would’ve finished it. But, I pushed on and finished the book, and this is one of those reads that was worth pushing through and finishing.

Let me explain: if, this far, you have imagined that the ugliness of ageing and conciergely widowhood have made a pitiful wretch of me, resigned to the lowliness of her fate—then you are truly lacking in imagination. I have withdrawn, to be sure, and refuse to fight. But within the safety of my own mind, there is no challenge I cannot accept. I may be indigent in name, position, and appearance, but in my own mind I am an unrivalled goddess.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is told by two different point of view (POV) characters. There is Paloma, age twelve, who is set on committing suicide on a certain day. The other POV character is Renee, who is 54, and is the concierge at the building where Paloma lives. One thing to consider before starting the book is that the chapter headings don’t tell the reader which character we’re reading about. There are different fonts used for each “narrator”, and you can only tell which character you’re reading about by the different font choice, and as you go on, by knowing more about the characters and being able to distinguish the two narrators. This was quite confusing, but the key is to remember that a different font means a different character, and that really helped.

Paloma is an intelligent child struggling to be understood. Renee is also very intelligent, but as she is the concierge, she hides her intelligence and acts dumb around other people in the building. I did not understand why she did this at all. It was quite puzzling to me and I feel I missed an important point of the book because this reasoning was completely lost on me.

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.

About halfway through the book, a Japanese man named Kakuro Ozu moves into the building, and Renee and Paloma each befriend him, and also at this point befriend each other as well. I loved all of the friendships, and Ozu’s appearance really set things in motion for that ending.

“They didn’t recognize me,” I say.

I come to a halt in the middle of the sidewalk, completely flabbergasted.

“They didn’t recognize me,” I repeat.

He stops in turn, my hand still on his arm.

“It is because they have never seen you,” he says. “I would recognize you anywhere.”

The ending is what I think most people will remember about this book, and will either have you love it or hate it, and while the ending really devastated me, I still ending up liking the book. There is a lot of pretentious, eye rolling talk from the characters, but all in all I did enjoy this read and would recommend it to those readers who enjoy literary fiction and are willing to push through reading pretentious prose. There are some truly beautiful lines here, but there’s also a lot of deep heavy sigh, look up a word in a dictionary reading too.

As a book club read, this title sparked a lot of discussion and while it won’t be right for every book club or every reader due to the difficult pretentious and philosophical nature of the book, my book club as a whole was glad to have read it!

Bottom Line: Pretentious and devastating, but it found its way into my heart!

LINKS ***the Amazon link is an affiliate link which means I receive a small commission if you click the link and make a purchase***


Have you read this book? Did you love it or hate it? What did you think of that ending?


9 thoughts on “Book Review: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

  1. Like you, I loved and disliked the book, thinking at the one-third mark that I couldn’t possibly read any more and then slowly turning my opinion around and loving it …. except for the very end. Right on review!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks 🙂 I love how book clubs force us to read books we’d otherwise give up on! Which is why I find it so hard to stop reading a book – I keep thinking it must get better!


  2. I think a lot of the bigger ideas in this book went over my head. Like you, I enjoyed the second half of the book more than the first as I’d started to care about the characters by then. In my copy, Paloma was named ‘Solange.’

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I know I missed some of the points of this read! I think once the characters of Paloma & Renee started to become friends made it connect more. Oh my word – Solange? That’s so odd that they would change the name. I read an English translation so I wonder if Solange was the original name of the character or if Paloma was. I wonder why the name was changed.

      Liked by 1 person

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