Muriel Barbery: “The Elegance of the Hedgehog”

See image credit below.

See image credit below.

Oh, how I love this quiet novel! Written in France in 2006 by philosopher Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog is itself quite elegant.

Initially only 4,000 copies of the novel were published – and only 12 copies were sold the first week it was on the market. But then through an amazing wave of word-of-mouth recommendations, The Elegance of the Hedgehog rocketed to the top of the French bestsellers’ list. Two million copies were sold in France, and another six million were sold throughout the world. It has been a bestseller not only in France but also in Italy, Germany, Spain, South Korea, the United States, and many other countries. (The English translation is by Alison Anderson.)

The novel is set in an upper-middle-class apartment building on Paris’s Left Bank: 7 Rue de Grenelle, known as one of the most elegant streets in the famed French city. The apartment building is a world unto itself, not a microcosm of French society but instead its own complete world.

The three main characters – the school girl (Paloma Josse), the concierge (Renée Michel), and the Japanese businessman (Kakuro Ozu) – are each exquisitely drawn. For a good portion of the novel, Paloma and Renée are the focal points; Kakuro Ozu doesn’t come along until later.

Though we are slowly drawn in by Barbery’s characterizations of both the young, wealthy, privileged twelve-year-old girl and the 54-year-old widow who works as the apartment building’s concierge, it is hard to see how they will come together even though they live in the same apartment building. The class chasm between them is so deep: Paloma and her family are rich, and Renée works as the building’s concierge – the custodian or “super.” How on earth will Paloma and Renée cross this divide?

What do I love about The Elegance of the Hedgehog? I love that the characters – including 12-year-old Paloma – are smart. I love that the novel is smart, that Barbery expects the reader to be smart. Not just smart in the sense of being culturally literate (though it does help to be familiar with Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel Anna Karenina) but also smart in the ways of being, in habits of thinking, of quiet sensitivity to the world, and most particularly smart in the nuances and subtleties of human relationships.

At first, I was frustrated by the novel’s slow pace. The book was boring, I thought. But then I found myself eagerly anticipating each evening’s reading time, as I would once again get to be with Paloma and Renée and Kakuro Ozu. Slowly but surely, Barbery drew me into their lives just as slowly but surely as they had become intertwined in each other’s lives.

Though it received awful reviews in France and though Barbery said she was displeased with the screenplay, I believe the film adaptation – The Hedgehog – is every bit as good as the novel. Directed by Mona Achache and released in 2009, to my mind the film is a rarity in that the film may be even better than the novel, a tour de force indeed. Beautifully shot, exquisitely and perfectly acted, balanced and careful in its unfolding and pacing, the film is just right. It pays fitting homage to the book.

If you’re interested in learning more, you might check out this list of discussion questions and short interview with Barbery. Other interviews can be found at Bookstore People, BookBrowse, and TimesUnion. And if you read French, you might want to visit Barbery’s website.

Watch:Watch the trailer for The Hedgehog.


Image Credit: Muriel Barbery, used with permission,