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BOOK, LINE & THINKER Review of The Elegance Of The Hedgehog

Updated on December 8, 2012

The Elegance Of The Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

Published by Europa Editions

I have long been a believer that physical age is inconsequential to ones persona. For example, parts of me were as wise at age 8 as I will be at age 80, while other pieces of me are currently as young as they were in my childhood. Friendships develop regardless of eras and despite differences in birth dates. This is just one reason why I fell in love with the characters – the people – in Muriel Barbery’s book The Elegance of the Hedgehog.

“I may be indigent in name, position and appearance, but in my own mind I am an unrivalled goddess.” (Renee)

Renee is a 54-year-old concierge in a hotel in Paris. If you judge a book by its cover, then you would overlook her book entirely. She is a workhorse, running her domain and tolerating its snide inhabitants. It didn’t take me long to have my wishes fulfilled when I discovered Renee leads a secret life as a fiercely intelligent goddess who has a strong penchant for books. She is dynamite. Before long, Barbery has me sitting at Renee’s kitchen table, savoring sweets with Renee and her dearest friend, Manuela. A jaded dreamer, I share their thoughts and laughter. Together we ponder life and its beauty, talk of art, speak poetry and see the humor in the most surreal realities.

“Our epilogue must be the person we have always been deep inside, regardless of any illusions we may have nurtured in our lifetime. Just because you have been around fine linen does not mean you are entitled to it – no more than a sick person is to health.” (Renee)

Paloma is a twelve-year-old resident of the hotel. She too is fiercely intelligent, if not moody. Her goal is suicide and she plans the event with meticulous forethought. Unable to relate to her bourgeois parents and her bratty sister, Paloma finds a kindred spirit in Renee. Age has no bearing on heart and mind when like souls find comfort in stolen conversations. Paloma keeps her personal goals hidden as she asks the daring questions; Renee listens and proves a precious confidant. As a reader, I myself was once akin to Paloma and her rants are not so foreign to me. Twelve – such a precarious age – places Paloma on the knife’s edge of childhood and adulthood.

“I believe that we can choose our moods: because we are aware that there are several mood-strata and we have the means to gain access to them.” (Paloma)

Everything changes immensely when the mysterious Orzu arrives to live in the hotel. He is a gentleman from Japan and despite every circumstance, he pegs Renee for the intellect she is. Through cautious navigation, Paloma and Renee grow to adore Orzu and a triad of kindred spirits is united in friendship. As I turn page after beautifully written page, I grow to love these individuals, adhering to their personalities. As their friendship secretly grows, Renee finds herself feeling a passion for life she believed long dead to her. As the clock ticks as Paloma counts down to her own death and Renee struggles with her devotion to Orzu…I am smitten.

“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; but in sunlight does it not look like a territory ripe for conquest?” (Renee)

As an avid reader it is very rare that a book affects me so completely that I have any physical reaction to the ink on its pages. This book left me speechless, and I gasped audibly when the pinnacle of my hopes and fears were revealed. Like the beautifully haunting melody of Mozart’s requiem, or Van Gogh’s vortex of stars, this novel will be forever woven into the fabric of my own being. Art, poetry, music, friendship, and simple happiness are all interwoven in this magnificent masterpiece of literary art. Few books touch our souls and leave their thumbprints on the face of our heart: The Elegance of the Hedgehog has done just that. This book is chock full of memorable quotes. Eloquent and riveting, I stash it on the shelf preserved for my most beloved tomes. May you love Renee, Paloma and Orzu as much as I.

“Moments like this act as magical interludes, placing our hearts at the edge of our souls: fleetingly, yet intensely, a fragment of eternity has come to enrich time.”

“When tea becomes ritual, it takes its place at the heart of our ability to see greatness in small things. Where is beauty to be found? In great things that, like everything else, are doomed to die, or in small things that aspire to nothing, yet know how to set a jewel of infinity in a single moment?”

“I am a complete slave to vocabulary. I ought to have named my cat Roget.”

“We talk about love, about good and evil, philosophy and civilization, and we cling to these respectable icons the way a tick clings to its nice big warm dog.”

“Because art is life, playing to other rhythms.”


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