The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Muriel BarberyGuest blogger: Valerie Appleby, Editorial Assistant, Two Roads

Marx, phenomenology,

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hubris, desire… all in the first few pages. If this sounds like your kind of book, then you would have been in the minority at the Two Roads book club meeting last Thursday. At least, right off the bat…

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, an international bestseller since 2009 and our Two Roads February book club pick, seemed at first to split the group into two camps: those staunchly opposed, who found the writing pretentious, the characters frustrating and the ‘feel’ a bit too French, and those in support, who relished the philosophical narrative and championed the main characters as they journeyed towards personal enlightenment. But after a bit of discussion, it soon became clear that aside from a couple participants who simply couldn’t get into the story, the majority of us came to like – if not love – it, perhaps

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due to a certain… je ne sais quoi (I couldn’t resist).

The story is one of interwoven narratives – that of Renee, the aging concierge of an upper-class Parisian residence, and that of a young girl, Paloma, who lives upstairs from Renee.

Paloma, a character I liken to Holden Caulfield, is both precocious and astute, but also jaded and naïve. She doesn’t believe that life is meaningful, and shuns her existence as a matter of course. But instances of beauty ‘come to life’ – a Bacon painting re-enacted, a choir in perfect unison – lead her to question whether beauty and art might have real significance.

In contrast, Renee, an erudite woman from society’s lower class, is both promiscuous and democratic in her consumption of art – from The Hunt for Red October to Anna Karenina, Eminem to Karl Marx – but hides her intellectualism from her upper-class neighbours in the fear that her ‘discovery’ would cause her harm.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery, DVD, French

French film image

Barbery weaves the narratives of Renee and Paloma into a graceful fugue that drives the book forward. Though each voice begins solo, they merge when the wise and affluent Mr Ozu enters the scene. As quickly as the narratives collide, a tragic ending severs them apart – though not before some charming soliloquies reassure the reader that, yes, both characters find what they are looking for in the end.

In his letter to our book club, Will Schwalbe, author of the forthcoming The End of Your Life Book Club, professed that he didn’t much care for the book until Mr Ozu came on board. Many of our book club participants felt the same. Still others felt that the near-instant bond Mr Ozu formed with Renee and Paloma seemed contrived and unbelievable – how could these characters drop a lifetime of defences in such a short span of time?

The answer, I suppose, lies in the camellia flower – Barbery’s choice symbol for the redemptive and renewing power of beauty. Renee and Paloma both find their camellia in Mr Ozu – as well as in each other – and as a result, they are spiritually and intellectually refreshed. So at the end of the hour, inspired after a long discussion of France, philosophy and art, the Two Roads book clubbers walked outside on a lovely spring day in Covent Garden, in search of a camellia flower of their own.

3 responses to “two roads book club: the elegance of the hedgehog by muriel barbery”

  1. nicky ross says:

    I tried the Hedgehog book but gave up after a few pages so was interested to read your post. I’ll definitely have another go – if only to meet Mr Ozu. Thank you.

  2. Jason Bartholomew says:

    I agree with Nicky. I got about 150 pages in, and just gave up. I even bought the unabridged audio book, to try and “read” the rest that way, and gave up. I just stopped caring about the characters. But perhaps Mr Ozu would save the day for me! I may never know.

  3. well, I have an English and Philosophy degree so you’d think it would be right up my street, but I read on holiday and didn’t love it: somehow too contrived and measured. Although I did like the characters, and I want Mr Ozu’s bathroom – golden carpet and musical loo … (VERY annoying twist at the end. But I’m a happy ending junky. which is not a literary thing)

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