Book Review: The Elegance of the Hedgehog

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
Gallic Books, $32.99

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. Photo / Supplied
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. Photo / Supplied

First published four years ago and since described as "the publishing phenomenon of the decade", this odd curio of a book is only just becoming more widely available in New Zealand.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is rather like a French film in that it's very beautiful and meaningful but not an awful lot happens. The story is presented as the journals of an isolated older woman and a young girl. Renee is the bunioned, prickly concierge of a smart Parisian apartment building (the hedgehog of the title). She believes her role in life is to be poor, discreet and invisible and so hides her true self from the world, putting on a facade as a dumb, TV-watching, cassoulet-making concierge while secretly listening to Mahler, reading Tolstoy and watching Japanese art films.

Upstairs lives the precocious 12-year-old Paloma Josse who has decided life is meaningless and plans to kill herself on her 13th birthday. But before she does so she challenges herself to find something on the planet worth living for.

Barbery, a former professor, is interested in how philosophy can be applied to everyday life and so both these characters spend much of their time having profound thoughts. As a result, parts of the novel can be a slog to get through, particularly if you happen not to be quite as well read as the redoubtable Renee. There are entire pages debating the purpose of art and sections of prose so flowery that only a French writer could get away with them.

The story moves along more briskly when one of the residents of the buildings dies and a Japanese man moves in and begins to melt the heart of the frosty concierge.

Barbery has written a relentlessly interesting book filled with ruminations. She uses her story to celebrate art and deride French snobbery, yet at the same time manages to make it heart-warming, amusing and moving. But I think the real reason it's been such an unexpected bestseller - more than 2.5 million copies have been sold worldwide so far - is its sheer originality. There's nothing else I've read that's been quite like it.

- Herald on Sunday

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