Book Review: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

July 31, 2011


“The Elegance of the Hedgehog” by Muriel Barbery is a fictional book set in Paris, France. The book discusses philosophy, culture, the class system, and more – sometimes on account of a strong story.

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When I first started reading “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” by Muriel Barbery I didn’t know what to think of it. I have heard of this book but I have little tolerance for authors who consider themselves intellectuals and talk down to their readers.

Luckily, this book was not such a book. It is the smart, funny, and touching story of two narrators. Renée is a widowed concierge in her 50s, she is self-conscious and thinks she will lead an easy life if the doesn’t let others know how smart she is. Paloma, the second narrator, is a 12-year-old girl who lives in the building where Renée works (and lives in as well). Paloma plans to commit suicide once she turns 13.

The book alternated between the two ladies. The reader sees the world through Renée, but only gets to read Paloma’s writing which she calls “Profound Thoughts”. The two of them have much in common (love of Japanese culture, similar views on existence, disdain for the absurd life of the wealthy who live in the building, and more) even though they come from very different backgrounds and generations.

As I mentioned, I don’t like books that talk down to the reader, books that are too forced and self-important. In the beginning, I thought this was the case, all the talk about Proust, Tolstoy, philosophy, and famed Japanese filmmaker Yasujirō Ozu’s movies seemed to hover above the line of clever and too clever. But the more I read, and I’m glad I did, the book slid from being overly structured to graceful.

The story is told through short chapters, more like a collection of essays but it works wonderfully. The two narrators’ sharp minds and wit come off the pages as well as Barbery’s talent in writing philosophical fiction. This is one of those books that you can read several times and discover something new each and every time.

On a side note, the book I read had many footnotes from the translator explaining the cultural (especially European) and philosophical references. If it wasn’t for those footnotes, I would have found it difficult to enjoy the book.

So tell me, which book do you like to read more than once?


Renée is the concierge of a bourgeois apartment building in Paris. She hides behind a rough exterior of an uneducated person to avoid the pretentious people she sees every day. In the same building lives Paloma, the daughter of one of the residents who plan to commit suicide once she reaches the age of 13.

Even though Renée and Paloma don’t know one another their observations about life are very similar.

Buy The Elegance of the Hedgehog from*
More Books by Muriel Barbery*
More Books Translated by Alison Anderson*

Zohar — Man of la Book
Dis­claimer:I got borrowed this book from my Mom.
*Ama­zon links point to an affil­i­ate account, the money is usually spent on books

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The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery


  • SpangleJuly 31, 2011 at 2:52 pm

    I have read ‘The Elegance Of The Hedgehog’ and I totally agree with you on all points you have mentioned. I wasn’t sure I would like this book, but I’m thankful that I continued reading this novel, because this is one of the best books I have ever read. It’s definitely a novel you can re-read and find something new every time.

    Great review!

    • zoharAugust 1, 2011 at 7:54 am

      Thank you very much for the kind words

  • mummazappaAugust 1, 2011 at 9:46 am

    I’ve only read positive things about this book, I’ve got a copy on my TBR shelf but I’m not sure if it’s got footnotes! Guess I might be googling a bit while reading it 🙂

  • StephTheBookwormAugust 1, 2011 at 12:18 pm

    I’m glad to hear this one was good – I’ve been wanting to read it for awhile.

  • DebbieAugust 1, 2011 at 7:22 pm

    Zohar, I never got past the stage of thinking this book was forced and too clever, even though I did finish it. Maybe if I’d had the version with the footnotes, I might feel differently.

    As for what I’d read twice: that’s hard since there are sooo many books out there I haven’t yet had a chance to taste. But one book that I have read several times in my life is Mrs. Mike by Benedict & Nancy Freedman. Feeds my spirit.

    • zoharAugust 1, 2011 at 9:23 pm

      Good choices Debbie.
      I might have felt different also if I didn’t have the footnotes.

  • Carin S.August 2, 2011 at 12:20 pm

    The footnotes might really make the difference. I too had a version without them. Got about 60 pages in, and just couldn’t keep going. I really wanted to like it, and I just couldn’t read any more. In fact, it started to drag on me and bum me out, and got me into a reading funk. I eventually had to get the book out of my house in order to get rid of the bad juju and start reading and enjoying again. I’m glad you liked it, but it was really wrong for me.

  • stacybooksAugust 3, 2011 at 7:22 pm

    I listened to this one a few months ago. I may have found the footnotes useful!

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