Muriel Barbery: The Elegance of the Hedgehog


Initially I read the first few pages and put this book down, realizing that I had to be in the right frame of mind to read this.  I suppose it could be read as a light read, just skimming the surface, but there is much more depth to it than that.  The book tackles many themes, among them philosophy, consciousness,  politics, family, suicide, social class, death, and deception.  There are references to many cultural icons and philosophers.

The two protagonists both live “lives in hiding”.  They have their complex, hidden, inner lives and then the “normal” or expected face they show the world.  An interesting contrast is that one is an older woman concierge of the apartment building, while the other is a 12 year old prodigy from a well-to-do family.   The 12 year old suffers from the fear of  “living the unlived life”, she sees no hope for any other outcome.  Renee, the concierge, doesn’t want to invite  the disparagement that she feels revealing her inner intellectual and cultural life, the life of an autodidact, would  cause.  Both the characters, develop strategies to allow them to maintain the facades that they present to the world.

A tenant in the building dies and and a new tenant moves in to the empty apartment.  This is the catalyst for the protagonists, Renee and Paloma, to meet and interact and eventually change, not necessarily themselves, but their world view.  One of the last passages in the book reflects this shift, “I have finally concluded, maybe that is what life is all about:  there’s a lot of despair but also the odd moment of beauty, where time is no longer the same…Something suspended, an elsewhere that had come to us, an always within never.”

Overall a well written book with many clever, interesting and thought provoking turns of phrase. For me personally, it raises the question of  “How does having a “hidden life” contribute to a sense of disconnectedness from others?”   To get the most out of  The Elegance of the Hedgehog, be prepared to read a little, then stop to digest what you have read before you move on.  Highly recommended read.