Saturday, October 16, 2010

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

The Elegance of the Hedgehog
by Muriel Barbery
Editions Gallimard, Paris 2006
Europa Editions, 2008
325 pages

Unabridged Audio: 8 CDs, 9.5 hours
Narrated by Barbara Rosenblat and Cassandra Morris 
Produced June 2009

If I was a betting woman, the two main characters in this story - Renee Michel, a 54 year old concierge in a luxurious French apartment building and Paloma Josse, a precocious and snarky 12 year old - would probably want me to be as frank as possible with my thoughts about this book.

After all, the entire novel is nothing but these two kindred spirits criticizing, complaining, and ridiculing.  And that's when they aren't busy telling you, the reader, how superior and well-read and intellectual they are to the likes of inferior you.  They're experts on everything and nothing and nobody is immune from their criticisms (the word "retard" is tossed around a bit too casually for my liking in the second half of the book and a relative with Down Syndrome is showered with nothing but contempt). 

So, because Renee and Paloma have taken up way more hours of my life than I should have allowed them to, I'm going to model their example and not mince any words about The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which is set in the modern day and translated from the French.  

This is quite possibly my least favorite book I have ever read. In all of my nearly 42 years.  (Well, I haven't exactly been reading for all of those years ... but you get what I mean.)

(Or, in this case, listened to - but I don't think the audio was the problem, for the narration was actually pretty good and captured what I imagined Renee and Paloma to be like.  Still, at one point I did switch to the print version because I didn't want to judge the book on the audio alone.  The print failed to endear me.) 

I normally don't have much of a problem abandoning books that aren't "working" for me. In this case, I thought about doing exactly that several times. The only reason why I didn't was because several bloggers I respect - and who share similar tastes as mine - said that it started off slow and then got better.

That didn't happen for me.

Here's how Barnes and Noble's website describes the novel, in case you haven't read any of the myriad reviews singing The Elegance of the Hedgehog's praises:

An enchanting New York Times and international bestseller about life, art, literature, philosophy, culture, class, privilege, and power, seen through the eyes of a 54-year old French concierge and a precocious but troubled 12-year-old girl. A moving, funny, triumphant novel that exalts the quiet victories of the inconspicuous among us.

I understand the premise of the novel, that people are not what they appear to be on the surface and hiding our true selves robs us of the joy that is life. But goodness, it certainly took long enough to make that point. I'm not always a patient person, so maybe that was the issue here. Even knowing that - and what happens at the end - I still find Renee and Paloma to be absolutely unlikable people and I am left with zero sympathy for either of them.

There was one point in the novel when I thought things were finally going to turn around for me (and for that matter, Paloma Josse)

"So here is my profound thought for the day: this is the first time I have met someone who seeks out people and who sees beyond. That may seem trivial but I think it is profound all the same. We never look beyond our assumptions and, what's worse, we have given up trying to meet others; we just meet ourselves. We don't recognize each other because other people have become our permanent mirrors. If we actually realized this, if we were to become aware of the fact that we are only ever looking at ourselves in the other person, that we are alone in the wilderness, we would go crazy .... As for me, I implore fate to give me the chance to see beyond myself and truly meet someone." (pg. 144-145)

Alrighty then, I thought, as I listened while driving through some of the most remote and rural parts of my state.  Paloma's had her epiphany, her a-ha moment of life. She's going to be more open-minded, more welcoming, less judgmental, less contemptuous of everyone and everything around her. 

Not so much. This "profound thought" (of which Paloma just loves to bestow on the reader) arrives on pages 144 and 145. Paloma does get to the point of being less judgmental, but it takes another 100 or so pages.


I read someplace that some therapists are giving their patients a copy of The Elegance of the Hedgehog instead of a prescription for Prozac.  Well, I'm already on Prozac and this book makes me feel like I need to triple my dosage and drink a big bottle of French wine along with it. 

Fortunately for you, I am very much in the minority in my opinions of this book. (I truly believe I am the only person in the world who did not love this book.)  Here are a few more positive words from other bloggers who liked it a lot more than I did ... and some reviews that echoed a few of my own sentiments (whew!)

Beth Kephart Books
Book Bird Dog
Books I Done Read
The Boston Bibliophile
Caribou's Mom
Desert Book Chick
Farm Lane Books
Fizzy Thoughts
Fleur Fisher
Jenny's Books
Matt Views
My Books My Life
Necromancy Never Pays
Page 247
Reviews by Lola
Rhapsody in Books
She is Too Fond of Books
Shelf Life
Vulpes Libris

Did I miss your review?  Let me know in the comments!

copyright 2010, Melissa (Betty and Boo's Mommy, The Betty and Boo Chronicles) If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.


Anonymous said...

I really liked The Elegance of the Hedgehog. To the point of insisting that everyone should read it. I get what you mean about Paloma, I found her irritating most of the way through.

My review is here:

Marce said...

This is one of those books that continues to stay on the fence of decision - read or not read.

Thanks for the honest thoughts.

Beth Kephart said...

You thrill me with your honesty.

Anonymous said...

I didn't love it, although I liked it more than you did. Looking back on it, I think I appreciated it more than I liked it, if you know what I mean.

I can easily see why someone wouldn't love it, or even like it.

My review is at

JoAnn said...

My daughter's French class is reading this now - in French!! I should get a copy (in English) and read along to be supportive, but suspect I will have a reaction similar to yours.

Melissa (Betty and Boo's Mommy) said...

JoAnn, I cannot imagine reading this in French. Maybe listening to it in French might be worse, but I dunno. My sympathies to your daughter. :)