The Elegance of the Hedgehog

By Muriel Barbery
Binding:Paperback
Publisher:Europa Editions, (9/2/2008)
Language:English



Average Rating:
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3.17 out of 5 (6 Clubie's ratings)


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The enthralling international bestseller.

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.

 
 

CagneyC's thoughts on "The Elegance of the Hedgehog"
updated on:3/29/2012

For the first 100 pages - and the end, I would have rated this book Do Not Unlease - the middle was just enjoyable enough to raise it one notch.

Mildly Unleashable



SkinnyLinny's thoughts on "The Elegance of the Hedgehog"
updated on:2/7/2012

We did not care about these characters.  Two members fully enjoyed the book.

Mildly Unleashable



Beezy's thoughts on "The Elegance of the Hedgehog"
updated on:7/1/2010

This book was very hard to read for the first 100 pages

Mildly Unleashable



Penny's thoughts on "The Elegance of the Hedgehog"
updated on:9/18/2009



DEFINITELY Unleash it



Genia's thoughts on "The Elegance of the Hedgehog"
updated on:9/11/2009



DEFINITELY Unleash it



LisaL's thoughts on "The Elegance of the Hedgehog"
updated on:5/15/2009



Unleash it


"The Elegance of the Hedgehog"
By Muriel Barbery

Average Rating:
Unleash it
3.17 out of 5 (6 Clubie's ratings)


The Gentleman
The Gentleman
By Forrest Leo

 
 
 General reading guide discussion questions to be used with ANY book your book club or reading group might be discussing.
 
 

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?


Clubie Submitted Discussion Questions
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Editorial Reviews

From The Washington Post
From The Washington Post's Book World/washingtonpost.com Reviewed by Michael Dirda Renée Michel is the dumpy, nondescript, 54-year-old concierge of a small and exclusive Paris apartment building. Its handful of tenants include a celebrated restaurant critic, high government officials and members of the old nobility. Every day these residents pass by the loge of Madame Michel and, unless they want something from her, scarcely notice that she is alive. As it happens, Renée Michel prefers it that way. There is far more to her than meets the eye. Paloma Josse also lives in the building. Acutely intelligent, introspective and philosophical, this 12-year-old views the world as absurd and records her observations about it in her journal. She despises her coddled existence, her older sister Colombe (who is studying at the École normale supérieure), and her well-to-do parents, especially her plant-obsessed mother. After careful consideration of what life is like, Paloma has secretly decided to kill herself on her 13th birthday. These two characters provide the double narrative of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, and you will -- this is going to sound corny -- fall in love with both. In Europe, where Muriel Barbery's book became a huge bestseller in 2007, it has inspired the kind of affection and enthusiasm American readers bestow on the works of Alexander McCall Smith. Still, this is a very French novel: tender and satirical in its overall tone, yet most absorbing because of its reflections on the nature of beauty and art, the meaning of life and death. Out of context, Madame Michel's pensees may occasionally sound pretentious, just as Paloma might sometimes pass for a Gallic (and female) version of Holden Caulfield. But, for the most part, Barbery makes us believe in these two unbelievable characters. Unbelievable? Well, let's start with Madame Michel, the very stereotype of the Parisian concierge. Despite her appearance and outward manner, she possesses a mind of the most infinite refinement and precision, loves Mozart (and detective novelist Michael Connelly), regards Purcell's "When I am laid in earth" (from the opera "Dido and Aeneas") as "the most beautiful music for the human voice" in the world, can casually quote from Marx's Theses on Feuerbach ("Whosoever sows desire harvests oppression"), studies and rejects the philosophy of Husserl, shudders at slovenly grammar and even practices the Japanese tea ceremony in her private backroom. In short, this human dishrag, who left school at the age of 12, is more aware and more cultivated than anyone around her. Nonetheless, her inner life is entirely clandestine, and during the day she dons the mask of the dumb peasant that the world thinks she is. But why? "I was the child of nothing. I had neither beauty nor charm, neither past nor ambition. I had not the slightest savoir-faire or sparkle. There was only one thing I wanted: to be left alone, without too many demands upon my person, so that for a few moments each day I might be allowed to assuage my hunger," a hunger, that is, for books, art, music and speculative thought. That's what she tells us initially. But there are other, more emotional reasons for Madame Michel's withdrawal into herself, and nearly all of them arise from the great gulf of class. For example, she helped her late husband, Lucien, in overseeing the apartment house, until he grew sick: "To rich people it must seem that the ordinary little people -- perhaps because their lives are more rarified, deprived of the oxygen of money and savoir-faire -- experience human emotions with less intensity and greater indifference. Since we were concierges, it was a given that death, for us, must be a matter of course, whereas for our privileged neighbors it carried all the weight of injustice and drama. The death of a concierge leaves a slight indentation on everyday life, belongs to a biological certainty that has nothing tragic about it and, for the apartment owners who encountered him every day in the stairs or at the door to our loge, Lucien was a non-entity who was merely returning to a nothingness from which he had never fully emerged, a creature who, because he had lived only half a life, with neither luxury nor artifice, must at the moment of his death have felt no more than half a shudder of revolt. The fact that we might be going through hell like any other human being, or that our hearts might be filling with rage as Lucien's suffering ravaged our lives, or that we might be slowly going to pieces inside, in the torment of fear and horror that death inspires in everyone, did not cross the mind of anyone on these premises." As you can see, Madame Michel writes in extremely formal prose, though her aesthetic tastes prove surprisingly eclectic. While she is drawn to Japanese simplicity, to those still moments of the turning world when we perceive the beauty within the fugitive and transitory, she's no snob and tells us that anyone who wants to understand the art of storytelling should study the film "The Hunt for Red October": "One wonders why universities persist in teaching narrative principles on the basis of Propp, Greimas or other such punishing curricula, instead of investing in a projection room. Premise, plot, protagonists, adventures, quest, heroes and other stimulants: all you need is Sean Connery in the uniform of a Russian submarine officer and a few well-placed aircraft carriers." Much of the first part of Barbery's novel simply depicts daily life in the apartment building, as filtered through the sensibility of either Madame Michel or Paloma. The 12-year-old belongs to a long line of sophisticated French whiz kids, and she's able to toss off bon mots with Left Bank aplomb: "He's so conservative that he won't say hello to divorced people." "As far as I can see, only psychoanalysis can compete with Christians in their love of drawn-out suffering." "A teenager who pretends to be an adult is still a teenager. If you imagine that getting high at a party and sleeping around is going to propel you into a state of full adulthood, that's like thinking that dressing up as an Indian is going to make you an Indian. . . . It's a really weird way of looking at life to want to become an adult by imitating everything that is most catastrophic about adulthood." But halfway through The Elegance of the Hedgehog, the lives of Paloma and Madame Michel are unexpectedly transformed. A Japanese gentleman named Kakuro Ozu buys a vacant apartment. Though clearly rich, he is also immensely courteous and shrewd, and immediately perceives that neither the little girl nor the concierge is just what she seems. Before long, Monsieur Ozu is gently contriving some little tests to discover more about their secret lives. And this leads to developments that range from the comic to the touching to the heartbreaking. Madame Michel, in particular, begins to grow confused. Perhaps she does want more from life than books and music and videos. "Human longing! We cannot cease desiring, and this is our glory, and our doom. Desire! It carries us and crucifies us, delivers us every new day to a battlefield where, on the eve, the battle was lost." Eventually, though, the wavering concierge realizes that she must risk the awful daring of a moment's surrender. Paloma has already prepared us for this leap, when she writes in one of her journal entries about "kairos, a Greek concept that means roughly 'the right moment,' something at which Napoleon apparently excelled. . . . Anyway, kairos is the intuition of the moment, something like that." Nearly everyone in The Elegance of the Hedgehog takes great care over what the sociologist Erving Goffman once called "the presentation of self in everyday life." And this makes for much of the book's humor. At one point Madame Josse takes Paloma to consult an icily chic Parisian therapist about her little girl's "secretiveness." Eventually, left alone with the doctor, Paloma squares off with him: "Listen carefully, Mr. Permafrost Psychologist, you and I are going to strike a little bargain. You're going to leave me alone and in exchange I won't wreck your little trade in human suffering by spreading nasty rumors about you among the Parisian political and business elite. And believe me -- at least if you say you can tell just how intelligent I am -- I am fully capable of doing this." To Paloma's surprise, her threat actually works. At one point Madame Michel asks herself, "What is the purpose of intelligence if it is not to serve others?" What indeed? Certainly, the intelligent Muriel Barbery has served readers well by giving us the gently satirical, exceptionally winning and inevitably bittersweet Elegance of the Hedgehog.
Copyright 2008, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.

Review
“The formula that made more than half a million readers in France fall in love with this book has, among other ingredients: intelligent humor, fine sentiments, an excellent literary and philosophical backdrop, good taste, sophistication and substance.”
La Repubblica

“Enthusiastically recommended for anyone who loves books that grow quietly and then blossom suddenly.”
Marie Claire (France)

“An exquisite book in the form of a philosophical fable that has enchanted hundreds of thousands of readers.”
Elle (Italy)

“Nobody ever imagined that this tender, funny book with a philosophical vein would have enjoyed such incredible success. For some, it is part Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder, part Monsieur Malaussene by Daniel Pennac. While for others it resembles a written version of the film Amelie. Either way, readers are responding in vast numbers.”
Le Monde

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Muriel Barbery was born in 1969 in Casablanca. She studied philosophy at the Ecole Normale Suprieure and worked for many years as a philosophy teacher in France. Her New York Times bestselling novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Europa Editions 2008) has been published in over twenty languages. Barbery now lives in Japan and is working on a third novel.


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