The Elegance of the Hedgehog
Posted by: Misha Stone
My book group discussed Muriel Barbery’s international bestseller The Elegance of the Hedgehog last week and I can’t get over what a wonderful discussion it was.
I wrote about discovering the book some time ago. Between then and now I had spoken with a few people who really didn’t like the book, found the characters a bit snotty and less than compelling. So I reread the book in preparation for discussion uncertain of how it might hold up after a second read. I found myself jotting down notes and crying at its conclusion, even though I knew what was coming. Some of my group members also emailed to let me know that a film, “The Hedgehog,” had been made of the book that it got glowing reviews at the Seattle Film Festival.
I won’t go into too many details about the book here, as my previous post does that just fine. I will say that my group found much to talk about in Barbery’s two principal characters: Renee, the concierge and closet autodidact, and Paloma, the intelligent 12-year-old contemplating suicide. Readers found them enchanting and annoying and overall complex.
We talked about the themes of the book: class, stereotypes, prejudice, and self-absorption. We talked about how the book’s setting, while quixotically French, translates well to New York, and how class issues are very much alive and well in America despite our qualms about addressing it directly.
But when all was said, I asked everyone what they would take away from the book. One reader said hope. Another member told a story, and I may not remember it well enough to do it justice, but here goes. A friend of hers who worked with the homeless said that a man she met said that very few people actually ever see him, really see him as a human being. They give him money or food, but it is the rare person who acknowledged his humanity. The Elegance of the Hedgehog illuminates this fact splendidly–how we too often see reflections of ourselves in others, do not really see other people for who they are.
I also had the realization that both Renee and Paloma were unreliable narrators throughout. Many of their problems in life, their lack of connection and their sustained disdain for others, is predicated on their not being able to see beyond themselves. But by this definition, most of us are the unreliable narrators of our own lives. There is always something we don’t see, something we are missing. The Elegance of the Hedgehog invites the reader to look again–at themselves and at life.
I guess a novel steeped in literary and artistic references as well as philosophy will do that to you–make you think, see, feel. When I left our discussion, I felt lighter and, once again, grateful for the chance to talk about such a story with others.