Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog

The Elegance of the Hedgehog - Muriel Barbery

We are in the center of Paris, in an elegant apartment building inhabited by bourgeois families. Renée, the concierge, is witness to the lavish but vacuous lives of her numerous employers. Outwardly she conforms to every stereotype of the concierge: fat, cantankerous, addicted to television. Yet, unbeknownst to her employers, Renée is a cultured autodidact who adores art, philosophy, music, and Japanese culture. With humor and intelligence she scrutinizes the lives of the building's tenants, who for their part are barely aware of her existence.

Then there's Paloma, a twelve-year-old genius. She is the daughter of a tedious parliamentarian, a talented and startlingly lucid child who has decided to end her life on the sixteenth of June, her thirteenth birthday. Until then she will continue behaving as everyone expects her to behave: a mediocre pre-teen high on adolescent subculture, a good but not an outstanding student, an obedient if obstinate daughter.

Paloma and Renée hide both their true talents and their finest qualities from a world they suspect cannot or will not appreciate them. They discover their kindred souls when a wealthy Japanese man named Ozu arrives in the building. Only he is able to gain Paloma's trust and to see through Renée's timeworn disguise to the secret that haunts her. This is a moving, funny, triumphant novel that exalts the quiet victories of the inconspicuous among us. [ synopsis from goodreads ]




I finished this book yesterday and I'm still beyond upset. This review is going to be LOADED with spoilers so just fair warning before you decide to read it.

Okay so. Read this book for book club. Darling Beth picked it as a book that takes place somewhere she would like to visit (Paris). Which is basically all I knew about it going in. So I read the first third of it but then had to return it back to the library and go back on the waiting list before checking it out again. (I didn't know it was so popular until that happened????) Which took more than a month.

So I really ended up reading this in two distinct sections. The first third which I was pretty meh about because it never really drew me in and I didn't really like or connect with either of the main characters. Then when I started the rest of the book, I ended up liking it a lot more. When Monsieur Ozu showed up, I REALLY got interested. He was so fun and I loved the way he changed and challenged both of the principle characters. I really loved his relationships with both of them and how we'd first seen the world through their eyes individually and then, after his appearance, how those worlds began to change. And I also loved that our two mains didn't really meet each other until the last third of the book. And when they did, I really loved how they began to form a relationship.

And then disaster struck. Before the last twenty pages of this book, I had begun to enjoy it immensely. I was considering it a 4 or even 5 star book and considering recommending it to some friends. And then the cheapest, cop-out happened. Renée died. And not well, I might add.


I recently read an article (with which I agree 100000%) about character deaths and how some are done tastefully and for the advancement of the story. And then there are those that serve no purpose but a shock factor and to "give the story a splash". I feel this death completely and totally falls into the latter category. It didn't even feel real. It was written like it wasn't going to be real. Like the next breath was going to say it was all dream or a mistake. It served absolutely no purpose whatsoever. The other characters only had a hot minute to react to it before the book was done. It was like Renée's death was just thrown in as a way to end the book because no other good way was presenting itself.


So if the book had ended twenty pages sooner, I would've loved it. Because there were so many things in the middle to love. All the Anna Karenina references (especially about counting the trees WHICH IS MY FAVORITE PART OF ANNA KARENINA) and the Blade Runner references. All those pop culture references?? Yeah, I was completely on board for all of them. I was fangirling just like Renée every time Ozu trotted another one out. They were all fun and Ozu constantly surprising her with one of them is definitely why I was loving this book so much.

But I just cannot forgive that ending. I was seriously reading the dinner scene going "Renée finally has a chance to be happy! Now watch her die." I AM SO MAD I WAS RIGHT. It seems like the cheap shock factor you would expect from a tv show or a Nicholas Sparks novel. Not from what had before this been a beautifully written and inventive novel. I'm also most upset that Renée didn't escape the class line boundaries she'd so carefully avoided. Because I think that 100% sends the wrong message. If Renée had lived and actually had a friendship or even more with Ozu, I think that truly would've been the right message. In saying that people are people and they're not defined by the labels given by society. And saying that Renée is not her sister. But then she died and that entire message was erased. Because she never got to have that life and she never truly broke those boundaries. And that's what makes me the maddest.)


So I'm honestly just really disappointed. I expected so much more. And now I've just left this feeling a deep sense of regret for what could've been. And mostly angry for what almost was and then wasn't. This book had all the makings of being a novel I was really going to love. But after that ending, I just can't do that. And because of that, I probably wouldn't recommend it to anyone. Because wow. I don't think I would wish on anyone else what I am going through right now. It hurts too much. And not even in a good way. It hurts because this book could've been so much more and the potential was sorely wasted. How sad.


review originally posted on goodreads