Book Review: The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery

There are certain books that require a slow reading, that cry out to be savored, to be loved, to be underlined. These are the kinds of books that prove the most difficult test of self-control: one part of our readerly brains cries out to go faster, yearning for more, because it is just so damn good, while the other part, the rational part, the conservative part, tells you to slow down, to appreciate, to take your time. Because once it's over, it's over. And once you know the ending, no re-read will ever be the same.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is exactly that book. This is one that has sat on my shelf for nearly two years, after good friend and fellow blogger Emily sent me a copy as a birthday gift. And I'll admit, rather sheepishly, that I started the book on more than one occasion. I could tell immediately that it was the kind of book I would love, that I would lose myself in, that I would long to devour. And so I did not read it, because the timing was not right, and because it needed to be perfect.

When I finally sat down to open the first chapter for the tenth or eleventh time, it clicked. There it was, a full 325 pages of reading bliss that lay before me. It took me two days to read, and that was forcing myself to slow down.

What Muriel Barbery has presented with The Elegance of the Hedgehog, translated from the French by Alison Anderson, is a rich, complex story of two seemingly unrelated women: Renee, a concierge in an upscale apartment building, who cradles her secret intellectual life in quiet, and Paloma,  a precocious, eminently unlikable 12-year-old who is preparing to kill herself in order to avoid the tedium of adulthood. She argues, "“People aim for the stars, and they end up like goldfish in a bowl. I wonder if it wouldn't be simpler just to teach children right from the start that life is absurd.”

As their stories come together, as stories inevitably do, Paloma muses that Renee “has the elegance of a 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.”

Both characters, though not particularly likeable at first, are rich and extraordinary, and their disjointed stories are captivating and moving. With these two women, varied in everything from upbringing to age, Barbery forces readers to question what it is that lies beneath our assumptions of class, of intellect, of knowledge, and of love.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a book of slow-moving parts, of philosophical musings, of tangents and asides, and given its construction (alternating first-person narrative and journal entries), it is susceptible to lengthy monologues. But these are no a detraction or distraction; instead, they are some of the best parts. The slow pace and bittersweet nature of the story itself don't make for entirely uplifting reading, but the story itself is both hopeful and fulfilling. Just be sure to read with pen in hand, because there are innumerable passages here you'll want to remember.

“I thought: pity the poor in spirit who know neither the enchantment nor the beauty of language.”


Thoughts from other bookworms:

The Boston Bibliophile
A Book Blog. Period.
The Novel Word
Man of la Book
Vulpes Libris


You might also like:
Enough About Love by Henre le Tellier
13, Rue Therese by Elena Shapiro


The Elegance of the Hedgehog | Muriel Barbery, trans. Alison Anderson | Europa Editions  | 9781933372600 | $15.00 Trade Paper | 325 pages | September 2008 (orig. published 2006) | Buy from an independent bookstore near you


  1. I bought this book over the summer and brought it home on my Christmas break to read. It's sitting on my shelf, waiting its turn. Now I'm even more excited to read it!

  2. It sat on my shelf for some time, but I was so grateful that I finally picked it up and read it! Hope you enjoy it.

  3. I'm glad this one worked out so well for you. I started it a while back and couldn't get into it, but it does sound like a book work returning to enjoy!

  4. I loved it very much, and you have to see the movie, so well done. See my review, with a link to the trailer and my reaction to the movie:
    Then you can read Gourmet Rhapsody, by the same author, where you will meet familiar characters...

  5. This does sound like a book that needs to be read at just the right time. It sounds wonderful to me.


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