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The Elegance of the Hedgehog ~ Muriel Barbery

June 5, 2009


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Genre: Adult Fiction

Publisher: Europa Editions

325 pages

ISBN: 9781933372600

I was apprehensive about picking this up, initially. I was terrified of running into another Sophie’s World in which philosophy, at large, is dully mulled over “from a youth perspective”. With the hope that it would be a bit more adult, I went for it and was pleasantly surprised. That it was written in two different voices was refreshingly insightful rather where it might have turned out gimmicky.

Renee, the voice of age, a middle aged concierge, echoes Dostoevsky’s self deprecating paranoia of Notes From Underground while Paloma, the voice of youth, a reflective, angsty, preteen aristocrat, carries the more lighthearted, pondering nihilism of Sartre’s Age of Innocence. Renee prides herself on her ability to serve her building as a typical person of service while keeping her bookishness and penchant for Marx and Proust under the radar. Paloma, in reverse, is desperate to define an intelligence that is not defined by her aristocratic upbringing, largely criticizing the pretenses put on by her over-educated, psychobabble swallowing family and friends.

The two are largely disunited through the story, each observing their building’s occupants from separate corners. The advent of a new occupant, a wealthy, attractive Japanese man, brings the two women together for the second half of the book. His presence brings about change and discovery in each protagonist, albeit begrudgingly, primarily.

The reading is refreshingly light for such a heavy contextual undertaking and while there is very little to be described in the way of a plot, the piece does not lack action as it moves, internally, thought to thought. There is a subtle, understated beauty in the prose that flows throughout even as the voices change. Barbery succeeds in creating characters both intricate and flawed enough to know and understand while still maintaining a broader and more external reflection of class, love and life.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. LMerwin permalink
    June 12, 2009 5:06 pm

    Wow. After reading this more in-depth synopsis, I’m reconsidering putting this book off until next summer! It really sounds fascinating.

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