The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery, Alison Anderson (trans.)

So this is a really good translation.  It sounds French, if that makes any sense – the words from the people sound like things that would come out of the mouths of my French friends (if they felt like talking about Tolstoy, which so far they have not shown any particular inclination to do) – but without the awkwardness that bugs me in so many translations of foreign novels.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is about a concierge who has spent her life pretending to be stupid so that nobody will notice her.  She is fairly isolated, as you can imagine, but does not want to interact with the people in her building on honest terms.  She’s afraid of being found out.  Meanwhile, a little rich girl in the building has decided to kill herself when she turns thirteen, in order to avoid the idiocy she sees in the entire adult world.  Most of the book consists of their diary entries, the concierge and the twelve-year-old girl.

I have to say that there were times in this book when I felt like they were a bit mean, the concierge and the girl, about everyone else around them.  Not because people aren’t dismissive and arrogant and self-deceptive – lots of people are – but because they seemed to cut them so little slack.  Or rather, what bothered me was the feeling of dismissing most of the human race.  I am not immune to the allure of books in which the protagonist(s) are better than everyone around them, but I felt through probably the first third of this book that it was taking it too far.  Oh, and I thought Paloma, the little girl, was a smidge unbelievable.

However, it was a good book.  I quickly became interested in the concierge and the little girl, and I was excited for them to meet.  I liked it that their meeting was intriguing without being terribly dramatic, understated without being an anticlimax.  They coexisted peacefully once they had met, but not in the sense that they were teaching each other how to live.  They just liked being together.  Like people do.  They spend only a very small fraction of the book together, but the book is all about those quiet moments of connection and beauty and happiness.

So you should read The Elegance of the Hedgehog.  If you find it a little pretentious at first, keep on trying.  And then when you are finished, you should read it again.  I have a feeling it will be even more enjoyable upon successive rereading.  And someday I should learn really good French, and read it in the original.

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Let me know if I missed yours!

  • I swear, I got to this – “the book is all about those quiet moments of connection and beauty and happiness” – and I thought your next sentence before I read it.

  • I hope you like it. I’ve read some reviews that accused it of being pretentious, and I can see that – but really, in the end, it turned into such a lovely story.

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  • hi Jenny,

    Nice review! I have no idea about the “sound of French” but I did experience an immersion into the story that artistic uses of language enable.

    I excerpted the particular passage that Paloma writes about choral singing because it so well articulates what I was trying to express about a performance by the New Mexico Women’s Chorus that clearly elicited a temporary unification between performers and audience. Your review provides just enough background on the book to (I think) illustrate why I found “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” such a perfect read at this particular time/stage in my life.

    • That’s a great post – I love it when passages from books are that kind of perfect reflection of what I’m feeling. 🙂

  • It is sweet when serendipity occurs. I love most when it happens in real life – this or that encounter/conversation confirming or contributing to some other stream. It’s cool when it happens academically too. Like having a passage leap out that clarifies a point one perceives but is struggling to make concisely.

    🙂