The Elegance Of the Hedgehog

Two tormented geniuses, both struggling to find joy and fulfillment in this world, have just begun to reveal the many intricacies of beauty and intellectualism found in their daily lives, leading to discovery after discovery that is impossible to turn away from. In this first section of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery, these two intellectuals living in the same French Hotel have already pointed out many hypocrisies and simple facts of life that, hitherto, I had no inkling existed. This is not to say that I agree with all of the philosophical thoughts presented so far, but I am fascinated by them and can’t wait to keep reading. Despite this praise, there is one aspect of the book that bothers me. Though there are two of these radical geniuses residing in the same building, neither knows of the genius of the other. It is intriguing as well as disappointing that these two, who claim to be so far beyond the average intelligence, are unaware of this fact before them. Surely they cannot be as smart as they claim if they are so oblivious that they are unable to spot the presence of another like themselves, even if that other is attempting to mask their intelligence. It is also a subject of concern to me that the younger of the two geniuses is contemplating suicide because she feels that life has no meaning. It is odd for a child to be so cold and calculating, and perhaps that is a way that Barbary wishes to depict her unique intelligence. However, if she were to become acquainted with this other woman who shares her passion and proficiency intellectually, I feel that she may find something worth living for after all.

-Olivia Fuson



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17 responses to “The Elegance Of the Hedgehog

  1. akulawiec

    In Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, there are many a remarkable thought. Though thirteen-year old Paloma and a middle-aged Renée originate from extremely different circumstances, Paloma from political wealth and Renée from country poverty, their brains seem to operate on similar wavelengths. As Olivia has pointed out, the characters notice small facts of life with an ease that, truthfully, renders me jealous. For example, Paloma records her frequent observations, such as how aspirations for achieving excellence in youth will only lead to unhappiness as an adult, in a journal, labeling them as “profound thoughts.” No matter the genius of the thought, the use of the word “profound” irks me. Paloma implies that her thoughts are far more important the thoughts of others, and she implies this as though it is a fact. I, however, beg to differ on the profoundness of Paloma’s thoughts. Sure, her thoughts may be insightful, but that does not mean they are “better” than other thoughts. Similarly, Renée gives an air that her taste in the arts are more civilized than those of her acquaintances. Renée reads the works of philosophers and reflects upon them in a nearly boastful manner in her narrations. In fact, at one point, Renée reflected that “I have read so many books…” (Barbery 53). Personally, this statement seems a bit egotistical. It is fine and dandy to read a great many books, but reading is useless unless learned from. She muses upon the works of authors without applying their knowledge to her daily life. Therefore, though the characters of The Elegance of the Hedgehog are incredible indeed, they seem to be slightly bigheaded.

    ~Anna Kulawiec

  2. evacranch221

    The first ¼ of The Elegance of the Hedgehog was chalk full of philosophies and thoughts of intellectual profanity. While the musing of the two main characters is intricate, it does not leave a very big impression on me. I sort of tune out during the philosophical parts not because they are too complex, but because they are not presented eloquently. Instead of sneakily weaving thematic elements into a story, I feel as if Barbery is trying to shove the themes down my throat, which is sort of like eating a fruity Flintstone vitamin without masking the taste with a glass of milk or dinner. By itself, the vitamin tastes terrible, and it makes me stick my tongue out and grimace. I find myself blocking out these ramblings of philosophy because they simply do not sit well with me on their own. As brilliant as the thoughts and themes are, they are not as genuine in this format. Instead of discovering these themes on my own, it is like the book is trying to get me to buy the themes from them. I find that what we discover for ourselves, we believe in much more than what others try to spoon feed us. If this were not the case, then children would be just as wise and compassionate as adults claim to be. This is not the case. Every generation has to rediscover basic rules of life and love, compassion and loss all by themselves before they really take the rules to heart. I hope that as the book progresses, it becomes more of a story than a book of philosophy. The idea of an old woman who feels like she has missed her chance and a young girl who is preparing to give her chance up coming together has the potential to be an incredibly romantic novel of love, life and self-discovery. But in order for it to resonate with me, it has to be a story about the characters, not a string of their depressing and pessimistic thoughts that are so easily rejected in this format.

    ~Eva Cranch

  3. neetarao

    In this first quarter of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, I felt quite overwhelmed. The themes presented in the book go in depth, but the characters that deliver them fall short of my expectations. Like Anna, they seem egotistical and much too self-centered for my taste. They both value their own opinions and think nothing of anyone else’s. There has been very little characterization, as most of the dialogue has been just pure thematically stated musings. These idealistic characters seem less than real to me, and it makes the weight of their philosophical thoughts lessened. Like Eva, I too am waiting for a story, something to endear me to these characters, which, as presented, are wise beyond their years. The characters’ dynamics combined could become a true story, but as it is, I feel as if I am reading a non-fiction book written by a 17th century philosopher to rival Aristotle. There is the hint of a coming story with the mention of Paloma’s desire to commit suicide, but since the introduction of that topic, nothing has been done to further it. Something needs to happen, rather than the characters sitting in their homes, pondering the meaning of life, until they grow old and frail and can no longer write any more. I feel sure that the author will present this conflict and develop it soon, but I find it troubling that I am already through a quarter of the book and it still has not materialized. Another huge issue I have with this book is the fact that each chapter seems disconnected. Each chapter takes a new mini-story and tears it apart for us and exposes the theme. No connection exists between the chapters besides the consistent narrators. Having this many themes and this many conflicts dilutes the power of them all. I hope that the author consolidates, and this exposition stops, so that one theme and conflict can resonate throughout the story. If she just does that, then this book will instantly become a strong story.

    ~Neeta Rao

    • Reading the second section of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, I have begun to notice what my above group mates have intimated—the so called “genius” of these two characters is a sham. Their every word, every thought, every “profound” discovery cannot be anything beyond the insights of a normal, if not average, person as these insights are only the thoughts of the author herself. They pose no significance greater than the yarns spun by any other mind. It is conceited to think that one is capable of writing through the voices of the enlightened, since it requires them to possess this superior knowledge as well. Barbary displays an extremely narcissistic, sanctimonious personality in assuming her views to be so above everyone else’s. Barbary has become too caught up in impressing her inestimable knowledge upon the reader that she has forgotten one crucial element of this story, the plot. The characters have done almost nothing, in over one hundred pages, which may be fine for Dickensian writing, but not when the total story is only about three hundred pages long. The events transpiring so far could have been a fantastic fifteen to thirty page first chapter of a novel, but in no way can justify a hundred and fifty page monologue. It is unacceptable to force the reader to slog through this senseless, “profound” blathering if they don’t get anything in return. I am thoroughly bored and unimpressed with this section of The Elegance of the Hedgehog.

      -Olivia Fuson

  4. akulawiec

    As my group has most vehemently pointed out, The Elegance of the Hedgehog has been a rather drab novel. Far too many “profound thoughts” have been told, subsequently making the book non-engaging. Both of the main characters are so overcome with a lack of adventure that living begins to seem repetitive, dull, and uninteresting. Hence, their “profound thoughts” are repetitive, dull, and uninteresting. However, I believe that Muriel Barbery , the author of The Elegance of the Hedgehog , intentionally has included a thus-far unexciting plot with an abundance of boring thoughts for the sole purpose of conveying the monotonous lives of Renee and Paloma. Barbery’s incorporation of the continuously tedious lives of the protagonists demonstrates the dreariness of their existences. These two ladies are so full of boredom that they ramble on-and-on-and-on-and-on about the stupidity of life. This lack of excitement subsequently allows any small change in the novel to have a most tremendous effect on the two ladies. Thankfully, however, a new character has arrived to the novel, bringing with him interest and color into the previously dull lives of Paloma and Renee. The mere presence of this new character, a Japanese man named Ozu, fills the lives of the ladies with an excitement for what is to come next. This small change brings a powerful shift in the novel, one of brightness into poorly lit lives. Such a newfound brightness leaves me optimistic that The Elegance of the Hedgehog will steadily become more fascinating.

    ~Anna Kulawiec

  5. evacranch221

    I am officially disappointed in Barbery. The second section of this story has proven to be just as monotonous and exaggerated as the first. I have always thought that it would be fun to write a book about something that no one bothers writing about. Someone with a less than ordinarily boring life seems like it would be one of those topics. No one cares what happens to someone who hates life and has an incredibly insipid life, so I have always thought it would be fun to write a story where the reader discovers they care. This is primarily why The Elegance of the Hedgehog intrigued me. Barbery has shown me that writing a book about boring people makes a boring book. It is no different than writing a book about sad people; the book will inevitably be sad. There is a reason no one writes books about boring and sad people, and that is because books are for pleasure, for enlightenment or an escape. No one wants to escape to a world of boredom and snobby rich children and arrogant little girls who don’t use their superior brainpower for good. I think that Barbery has lost control of the story, and therefore, there is no more story to tell. It bothers me that I have learned more about the plot from the back cover than I have from reading the book. Two things that would help this story move away from the painfully bland but excruciatingly detailed daily events of an old woman and a young girl who plans to die is if there was some emotion added, and if the story and thoughts of the characters were not based on the thoughts of others. Barbery only writes about the works and ideals of philosophers, and therefore, a lot of the ‘genius’ commentary does not belong to the characters. Olivia mentioned this feeling of phony genius, and I completely agree. The characters should be totally original, and their thoughts should come from living life, not reading about it! Every thought they think should be discovered from their life, which would call for a much more endearing commentary on the world. It also bothers me how Paloma thinks that she is superior to emotions, like they are something to be conquered and killed. She is a suicidal teenager. She should be wrought with feelings and rebellious fear and hate, but also desperate need for love. She should at least believe in what she is planning to do. She should feel like her life is meaningful enough to make her death matter. Since she doesn’t, she seems very fake and selfish. She is dying because she is annoyed with her family and snobby enough to think that she has seen enough of the world from her elegant windows and brand new textbooks to pass a negative judgment over everyone in the world. It’s idiotic. She talks about corruption and hatred as if she has experienced the pain. She really has no idea what it is like to suffer, and she has no idea what she is doing giving up her life. She thinks she understands so much, but she is just being melodramatic and superior. She isn’t being used as a tragic example in the story either, or a fiery young rebel. She teaches the reader nothing, and therefore, has none of my sympathies. I know that sounds really harsh but she just doesn’t seem real enough for me to want to care about her, or even pity her for not knowing what it is like to be real.

  6. evacranch221

    ~Eva Cranch

  7. neetarao

    I think it is time to put it simply. Nothing can save this novel now. A simple diary of two incredibly dull and bland characters cannot suffice to even pass time. Half the book is over in a flash, and what has really happened? I can literally summarize the plot in one sentence. Nothing happened to either of the characters. That is honestly it. Paloma just laments about life’s woes and tries unsuccessfully to philosophically think about life. Although a new character has appeared, can he really save the novel, or will it just keep going downhill as it was before? I am inclined to believe the latter. Barbery’s writing style leaves the readers with the feeling of eating sawdust. The intense nothingness of what she writes makes one want to throw up. She uses dialogue like it is a prescription drug, trying not to overdose. Although Anna still remains optimistic, thinking Barbery made this plot extra-boring on purpose, I have no more hope. Half the novel is just excessive. I can understand a small appeal in making the first 50 or so pages boring, but including 160 pages is near insanity. As Eva pointed out, “Barbery has shown me that writing a book about boring people makes a boring book. It is no different than writing a book about sad people; the book will inevitably be sad. There is a reason no one writes books about boring and sad people, and that is because books are for pleasure, for enlightenment or an escape. No one wants to escape to a world of boredom and snobby rich children and arrogant little girls who don’t use their superior brainpower for good.” I completely agree. The characters are so incredibly boring that one can’t help but to feel bored. Past the utter boredom, the characters seem extremely unrealistic. How on earth would a child contemplating committing suicide be this calm and snobbish? It makes me feel little to no attraction to the characters. Rather than focusing on them, we seem to be focusing on the “profound” aspects of life. No attention is devoted to the characters, and it shows in my reluctance to read this novel. I have no more optimism or hope left in me for the revival of the plot, and even if it miraculously does, it will only half-satisfy me.

    ~Neeta Rao

  8. I completely agreed with my above group mates. That is, I completely agreed up until now. Though Barbary’s novel is still a narcissistic culmination of so called “profound” platitudes, something completely unexpected has emerged from these monotonous rants: an event of rising action. Renee and Paloma have finally met, and are beginning to see the other for what they truly are. After two hundred and fifty pages, it’s about time! My euphoric reverence of this tiny morsel of interest is a reaction so pathetic, that it almost justly portrays the cruelty with which Barbery has starved her readers of any exciting events. This meeting, along with the budding friendship between Monsieur Ozu and Renee, are the only threads of a plot that keep my in full possession of my sanity. Without them, I would most likely be tearing my hair out by this point. These tidbits of curiosity, parceled most stingily out to the reader, are intriguing, but, as Neeta explained, “I have no more optimism or hope left for the revival of the plot.” Though I see an inkling of potential in these last events, it in no way justifies the ardor of the last two hundred pages.

  9. akulawiec

    As my group mates have most ardently pointed out, The Elegance of the Hedgehog had a definite lack of a stimulating plot. Up until this third section of the book, where Monsieur Ozu is introduced and Renee and Paloma meet, the plot line was relatively unexciting. However, I think this rather tedious plot line was intentional. One of the most prominent aspects of The Elegnace of the Hedgehog was the dullness of Renee and Paloma’s lives. Both of the ladies were filled to the brink with boredom, and subsequently, the book was boring. Yet perhaps this wearisomeness was deliberate. Perhaps it set the scene so that the merest disturbance in the perpetual monotony of Renee and Paloma’s lives would have a profound impact on the ladies. For example, Monsieur Ozu is merely a character introduced to the plot of The Elegance of the Hedgehog. He is simply a new tenant at number 7, rue de Grenelle, the posh apartment complex where Renee works and Paloma lives. Though the most exciting aspect of Monsieur Ozu is his living in the apartment, he stirs up wonder and curiosity within Renee and Paloma, to both of which are long-lost emotions. Because of the monotony that occupied the lives of Renee and Paloma previous to Monsieur Ozu’s arrival, his arrival is tremendously thrilling. The “boringness” of the ladies’ lives allowed any minute variation in the lives to be profound.

    ~Anna Kulawiec

  10. evacranch221

    I am at my wits end with this book. I feel like an animal in a cage, begging for scraps of interest to be thrown through the bars by Barbary when I read it. The characters simply didn’t start off on the right foot with me. They were not interesting or puzzling, likeable or detestable, so even though a tiny bit of a story is finally emerging, it is just too late for me to care about what happens to them next. I also have no idea what this book is trying to say. There is no common thread between all of the musing and insipid conversations that take place inside the novel. In every paragraph the characters try to tell the reader about a new thought or feeling about art with a capital A and beauty with a capital B. I feel overwhelmed because although any one of those things could be a substantial theme for a book, all of them at once turn it into meaningless blabber. It is almost as if all these half formed ideas were thrown into a pot and stirred up into porridge, becoming thick, gooey and bland. Barbary needs to watch a few cooking shows and learn to bake cookies instead 😉 I have never liked porridge, so I find myself skimming over the supposedly ‘profound’ thoughts and philosophies about tables because they really don’t make a difference when they are all mixed together.
    I am also really disliking Paloma. She is no genius and she accuses her family of being so terrible but she should take a good look at herself! She talks like she is the queen of England, but then her entire commentary will be on the corruption of monarchs and the snobby noble class that she belongs to. In one passage in particular I was extremely put out. She is in a café with her aunt Helene, who starts a conversation with the family at the next table. This family has adopted a little baby from Thailand, and he is only about one year old. Paloma starts ranting on and on about how he is going to suffer extreme culture shock because he belongs in an impoverished fishing village in Thailand, not in a fancy French café, and because he is here, and not there, he will want to burn cars later in life and hate the world forever. Come on! That is the most ridiculous thing I have ever read. He probably won’t even REMEMBER Thailand, and he is being raised by two Frenchmen. He will fit in perfectly. Paloma needs to get off her high horse and take a good look at the world. Most children have a distorted view of the world because they are idealistic and naïve, but she is twisting the world because she is so cynical! This makes me reject her insights and come up with counter arguments to everything she says. I do not have very high hopes for the end of the novel.

    ~Eva Cranch

  11. neetarao

    I have gained a small dose of optimism. Although Eva still seems dissatisfied with the book, I find that just the simple introduction of real dialogue is pulling this book up out of its grave. I agree that it is much too late for the author to do this, but all the same, at least Barbery had an ounce of sense. Reneé now seems like a real person, not just a robot. Monsieur Ozu has brought out speech. Actual speaking and a plot have developed. Having this plot improves the book.
    Although it is improving, the improvements are simply too little, too late. With the improvements made to Reneé, Paloma’s faults become blatantly disgusting. The way she writes makes one want to barf up everything they had for lunch. Her attitude exudes narcissism. It is evident that Paloma’s strange love for herself will not die. She believes in no one but herself. She trusts Ozu to a small degree, but not enough for the reader to be any more interested in her skewed “profound thoughts”. She has no real credibility and she honestly ruins the whole book for me.
    The plotline seems to be rising, but it is so late that I wonder if there will even be a climax. For the author to wait until the third quarter of the book to even give the reader a hint of a plot is honestly ridiculous. This hardly satisfying hint of a plot has really done no good in the scope of things. For now, it has satisfied me almost insignificantly, but considering the majority of the book, this hint of a plot will lead to nothing. There has been a small development in Reneé’s character, but that cannot do much for this book so late in the game. It is like Barbery wrote the majority of the book and then got advice from someone, telling her to add more rising action. She then added it, but was too unmotivated to fix the rest of the book. With all the major issues with this book, how it even got published and became a bestseller is unknown to me.
    ~Neeta Rao

  12. The Elegance of The Hedgehog: 3/10 Stars
    Finally, after many pages and much boredom, does this novel at last come to an end. It was a long and arduous read, but now it is finished. It is true, that in the last fifty, sixty pages or so I did become slightly interested, I will confess, but not nearly interested enough to warrant two hundred or more pages of utter monotony. There was no happy ending, no redeeming quality, and no silver lining to case this story in, after there ceased to be any more words written on the page. This ending came with only bitterness and depression. Perhaps I should look to the thematic aspects of this novel to find meaning from the cruel twist of fate that marred this book’s last chapters. Perhaps I should look for the fulfillment of dreams or the good fortune of other characters, but I cannot. I expected, at least, to have a happy ending, but I was denied even this shred of satisfaction. I do not recommend this book to any seeking a read containing the slightest amount of wit, revelation, vindication, or even interest. In fact, I recommend it to no one at all. I am thoroughly disappointed in this ending, as well as the beginning and the middle of this novel if I am to be perfectly honest. There is only one thing that can be said in favor of Barbary’s creation, and that is that at least it was consistent.

    -Olivia Fuson

  13. evacranch221

    Hate is a very strong word. To say that I hated The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery would be very generous of me. This book did not evoke any emotion, and in the end, I did not even care enough about it to detest it. The pages were filled with tedious attempts at genius and total baloney. Right up until the last two or three chapters the reader knows nothing of the character’s back stories, then suddenly one is bombarded with the pathetic past fears of a lifeless person as if it is supposed to justify the lameness of the entire story. I usually cry like a baby when a character dies, but in this book I didn’t even blink. This is due to the fact that no character seemed real. They were all one dimensional and empty. Renée stays in her house all day, talking only to her cat and occasionally her one and only friend, but she never expresses that longing to be a part of something more than the apartment building she runs. She never shows that she is lost and sad and confused, so when she does start to pity herself it makes her seem greedy and ungrateful for the friend she calls great. She was never really alive in my mind, so when she died, I was not at all affected. Renée’s death is honestly not much of an event in the story, and I am giving away nothing by revealing this detail. Choosing to end the book with the death of one of the main characters shows the reader that Barbery had lost control of her story. This desperate act of sacrifice was just as lame as ending the story with ‘and then I woke up.’ It makes all the prior events (that didn’t really happen) seem like a waste of time, and meaningless. The book was totally plot less, and shallow. It offered no insight into human nature, or how people can change each other’s lives because nothing happened, and no one ever felt anything. The lives of the characters that the reader vainly follows do not ever improve each other, which was what the back cover implied. I would rate this book a 0 out of 10 because it was completely pointless, shallow and a waste of my time.
    ~Eva Cranch

  14. evacranch221

    …well that was harsh…but I was serioulsy bugged by this book!

  15. akulawiec

    The Elegance of the Hedgehog: 6/10
    When I think of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, words such as “boring,” “obnoxious,” and “slightly detestable” come to mind. Why? The Elegance of the Hedgehog lacks the pleasurable first impressions of an interesting setting, relatable characters, and a happy ending. Firstly, the setting lacks imagination. Really, Barbery? Did you truly have to write a story which has, like so many others, a setting stressing the difficulties of overcoming classes and social divisions? Secondly, the characters are aloof and displeasing. Renee, rather annoyingly, reiterates how she is Cinderella and the rest of the world is the Evil Stepmother; at the beginning of the novel I felt a degree of pity for Renee. After all, wasn’t she a tragically misunderstood concierge? Yet as the story progressed, Renee’s character hardly developed, and after reading each of Renee’s “profound thoughts,” I was left with distaste. Paloma, however, is far worse than Renee. Though she eventually realizes that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, she continues to be a woe-is-me child with no appreciation for many of those around her. Paloma lacks the ability to see other perspectives, and that, too, I find distasteful. And thirdly, perhaps the vilest aspect of The Elegance of the Hedgehog is its ending. Killing off one of the main characters is not cool, Muriel Barbery. Though the unfortunate death of Renee may parallel the unfortunate deaths of many other saintly souls, death is not a happy ending. Renee’s demise is not a happy ending. As a reader, I do not appreciate Renee’s death after being forced to endure all of her woes throughout the novel. So, I have established that The Elegance of the Hedgehog is boring, obnoxious, and slightly detestable. Yet do these traits make it a “bad” book? I certainly think not. Despite my repeated ridicule of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, I believe it to be a book about strength, and that is something everyone could use a little more of. Though the setting may be lackluster, the characters annoying, and the ending sad, the story still tells of the strength necessary to endure through life’s evils. And even if the evils are petty, they are evil nonetheless, and attempting to reason with them requires strength. Therefore, I rate this book a 6 out of 10, purely because of the strength it demonstrates.
    ~Anna Kulawiec

  16. neetarao

    1 out of 10
    Muriel Barbery succeeded in only one thing with this book. She bored me from start to finish. The Elegance of the Hedgehog was one of the most distasteful books I have read in my life, to say the very least. It irritated me to the core, and being an avid reader, that rarely happens to me. There are many aspects of the book that annoyed me, but to keep it simple, I will condense it into one sentence. The Elegance of the Hedgehog lacks the most basic fundamental of writing: a plot. Whatever Barbery tried to throw out, none of it made a plot. There was no climax, leaving the reader perplexed as to what the whole point of reading the book was. That’s the catch. The book had no point. We waited and waited until the finale, hoping and praying that the point of the book would materialize. Barbery left us starving and malnourished, crying from the utter nothingness that this book left behind. She tried to end the book with a bang, killing off Renée. I found it as if she was thinking in her mind “I better end this book quickly… Oh well, I can just kill this character and then readers will be satisfied with the ending I think!” I remember thinking those exact same words when writing stories in third grade. Barbery had the insensitivity and unimaginativeness to end the book rashly, without a single thought. Good writers write their ending first, and Barbery must not have written her ending first. Either that, or she completely forgot that that was her chosen ending, because there was absolutely no build up to this completely unsatisfying ending. It didn’t break my heart, or ensue any empathy at all. Barbery needs to go to some writing classes, because she certainly did not include a plot, something that even primary picture books usually include. Overall, I am thoroughly dissatisfied with this book, and I would rate it a 1 out of 10. I am not quite sure that this book deserves this high of a grade, but Barbery has to receive some credit because she did give a little background on Renée at the end. I would definitely never recommend this to anyone, and to be honest, I am glad that this book is over and done with.

    ~Neeta Rao

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