Europa Editions Reading Group Guide
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
1. True life is elsewhere…One French critic called The Elegance of the Hedgehog “theultimate celebration of every person’s invisible part.” Howcommon is the feeling that a part of oneself is invisible to orignored by others? How much does this “message” contribute tothe book’s popularity? Why is it sometimes difficult to show peoplewhat we really are and to have them appreciate us for it?
2. This book will save your life…The Elegance of the Hedgehog has been described as “a toolboxone can look into to resolve life’s problems,” a “life-transformingread,” and a “life-affirming book.” Do you feel this is an accuratecharacterization of the novel? If so, what makes it thus: the storytold, the characters and their ruminations, something else? Canthings like style, handsome prose, well-turned phrases, etc. add upto a life-affirming book independently of the story told? To put itanother way—Renée Michel’s way—can an encounter with purebeauty change our lives?
3. —a roseBy any other name would smell as sweet.Both Renée and Paloma use stereotypes to their benefit, hidingbehind the perceptions others have of their roles. Ourunderstanding and appreciation of people is often limited to asuperficial acknowledgement of their assigned roles, their socialmonikers—single mother, used car salesman, jock, investmentbanker, senior citizen, cashier… While we are accustomed tothinking of people as victims of stereotypes, is it possible thatsometimes stereotypes can be useful? When, under whatcircumstances, and why, might we welcome an interpretationbased on stereotypes of our actions or of who we are? Have youever created a mise en place that conforms to some stereotype inorder to hide a part of yourself?
4. “One of the strengths I derive from my class background is thatI am accustomed to contempt.” (Dorothy Allison)Some critics call this novel a book about class. Barbery herselfcalled Renée Michel, among other things, a vehicle for socialcriticism. Yet for many other readers and reviewers this aspect ismarginal. In your reading, how integral is social critique to thenovel? What kind of critique is made? Many pundits weredoubtful about the book’s prospects in the US for this very reason:a critique of French class-based society, however charming it maybe, cannot succeed in a classless society. Is the US really aclassless society? Are class prejudices and class boundaries lesspronounced in the US than in other countries? Are the socialcritique elements in the book relevant to American society?
5. Hope I die before I get old…Paloma, the book’s young protagonist, tells us that she plans tocommit suicide on the day of her thirteenth birthday. She cannottolerate the idea of becoming an adult, when, she feels, oneinevitably renounces ideals and subjugates passions andprinciples to pragmatism. Must we make compromises, renounceour ideals, and betray our youthful principles when we becomeadults? If so, why? Do these compromises and apostasiesnecessarily make us hypocrites? At the end of the book, hasPaloma re-evaluated her opinion of the adult world or confirmedit?
6. Kigo: the 500 season words…Famously, the Japanese language counts twelve distinct seasonsduring the year, and in traditional Japanese poetry there are fivehundred words to characterize different stages and attributesassigned to the seasons. As evidenced in its literature, art, andfilm, Japanese culture gives great attention to detail, subtlechanges, and nuances. How essential is Kakuro’s being Japaneseto his role as the character that reveals others’ hidden affinities?Or is it simply his fact of being an outsider that matters? Couldhe hail from Tasmania and have the same impact on the story?
7. Circumstances maketh the woman…Adolescent children and the poor are perhaps those social groupsmost prone to feel themselves trapped in situations that theycannot get out of, that they did not choose, and that conditiontheir entire outlook. Some readers have baulked at the inversesnobbery with which the main characters in The Elegance of theHedgehog initially seem to view the world around them and thepeople who inhabit it. Is this disdain genuine or a well-honed defence mechanism provoked by their circumstances?If the later, can it therefore be justified? Do Renée’s and Paloma’s views of the world and the people who surroundthem change throughout the book? Would Paloma and Renée be more prone to fraternal feelings if theircircumstances were different?
8. “Unprovided with original learning, unformed in the habits of thinking, unskilled in the arts of composition, Iresolved to write a book.” (Edward Gibbon)In one of the book’s early chapters, Renée describes what it is like to be an autodidact. “There are days when I feelI have been able to grasp all there is to know in one single gaze, as if invisible branches suddenly spring out ofnowhere, weaving together all the disparate strands of my reading—and then suddenly the meaning escapes, theessence evaporates, and no matter how often I reread the same lines, they seem to flee ever further with eachsubsequent reading, and I see myself as some mad old fool who thinks her stomach is full because she’s beenattentively reading the menu. Apparently this combination of ability and blindness is a symptom exclusive to theautodidact.” How accurately does this describe sensations common to autodidacts? What are the advantages anddisadvantages of being self-taught?
9. The Philosopher’s Stone…Much has been made of the book’s philosophical bent. Some feel that the author’s taste for philosophy and herhaving woven philosophical musings into her characters’ ruminations, particularly those of Renée, hampers the plot;others seem to feel that it is one of the book’s most appealing attributes. What effect did the philosophical elementsin this book have on you and your reading? Can you think of other novels that make such overt philosophicalreferences? Which, and how does Hedgehog resemble or differ from them?
10. A Bridge across Generations…Renée is fifty-four years old. Paloma, the book’s other main character, is twelve. Yet much of the book deals withthese two ostensibly different people discovering their elective affinities. How much is this book about thepossibilities of communication across generations? And what significance might the fact that Renée is slightly tooold to be Paloma’s mother, and slightly too young to be her grandmother have on this question of intergenerationalcommunication?
11. Some stories are universal…The Elegance of the Hedgehog has been published in thirty-five languages, in over twenty-five countries. It hasbeen a bestseller in France, Spain, Germany, Italy, South Korea, and America. In many other countries, while itmay not have made the bestseller lists, it nonetheless has enjoyed considerable success. In the majority of thesecases, success has come despite modest marketing, despite the author’s reticence to appear too often in public, andher refusal to appear in television, and despite relatively limited critical response. The novel has reached millions ofreaders largely thanks to word-of-mouth. What, in your opinion, makes this book so appealing to people? And why,even when compared to other beloved and successful books, is this one a book that people so frequently talk about,recommend to their friends, and give as gifts? And what, if anything, does the book’s international success sayabout the universality of fictional stories today?
12. “…a text written above all to be read and to arouse emotions in the reader.”In a related question, The Elegance of the Hedgehog has been described as a “book for readers” as opposed to abook for critics, reviewers, and professors. What do you think is meant by this? And, if the idea is that it is a bookthat pleases readers but not critics, do you think this could be true? If so, why?