Monday, January 4, 2010


With the wisdom of age, I no longer make New Year's resolutions, or only ones that I know I can not only aspire to but easily fulfill. This year I made only one resolution: to post about a book in my book blog ("Julie's Bookshelf") before I begin the next one!

So far I am doing smashingly well.  I bought "The Elegance of the Hedgehog" by Muriel Barbery with my Christmas gift card last Wednesday, and finished it New Year's Day, so I'm counting it as the first book for 2010.

I used to review books in this blog, "Celtic Lady", but quit after I started my book blog ( However, I thought I would post the review for "Elegance" here as well, mainly because I think it's a book everyone should read, but also because my poor little book blog is lonely and forlorn, un-visited and unloved.

I had heard about "The Elegance of the Hedgehog" through Cornflower's Book Blog (link on my sidebar). From her I learned that readers are very divided about this book, either loving it or hating it. Those who didn't care for it had two major complaints: that the main characters were snobbish, elitist and unlikable, and that the book itself was too intellectual, too philosophical, boring even.

Although I am a smart, quite well-educated person, I do not consider myself an intellectual, and am, in fact, put off by the yammering of self-important intellectuals. (I think of a girl at school named Blatherwick whom my friends and I called Blatheralot). I was a bit intimidated too: afraid to buy the book and let myself in for philosophical treatises too deep for me. But the glowing descriptions of those who liked the book tipped the balance. And "The Elegance of the Hedgehog" turned out to be one of the best books I have read in a long time. I know I will be reading it again and again.

The two major characters are Renee Michel, the apparently sterotypical concierce of a Parisian apartment building, and 12-year-old Paloma Josse, who lives in the building with her family. Both are stunningly intelligent but - for reasons that will ultimately be revealed - each chooses to hide her intellectual light under a bushel basket of anonymity.

Renee, a 54-year-old widow, is known only as Mme. Michel to the tenants. They have no idea that behind closed doors Madame is vastly unlike her public persona of the dowdy, grumpy concierge. Rather than sitting glued to mind-numbing television, Renee, an autodidact, listens to classical music, reads philosophy and watches DVDs of Japanese films.

Precocious Paloma is world-weary and disillusioned. Her parents, sister, schoolmates and teachers have no idea of the depths of her still waters. Perhaps too well read and too informed for her tender age, Paloma has come to the conclusion that life is not worth living. She plans to commit suicide and burn down the apartment building on her upcoming 13th birthday.

The arrival of a new tenant in the building - the extremely perceptive Japanese businessman and aesthete Kakuro Ozu - is the catalyst that brings Paloma and Renee together, lifts Renee out of her self-spun cocoon and gives Paloma an abiding reason to live.

Rather than finding them snobbish and offputting, I loved Renee and Paloma immediately. Perhaps it's because I was and am still in many ways a misfit that I identified with them so. I found the philosophical discussions to be intriguing and sailed through them fairly well, finding only Chapter 2 under "Paloma" a bit daunting. But to balance out that chapter is Chapter 11 under "Summer Rain" that begins "What is the purpose of art?" and ends with this sublime sentence: "For art is emotion without desire."

The language of "Hedgehog" is glorious throughout. Through the character of Paloma, Barbery writes, "Pity the poor in spirit who know neither the enchantment nor the beauty of language." For those who recognize it, the enchantment and beauty of language are on every page of "Hedgehog". For example, this paragraph which ends a description of a summer rain:

"Just as teardrops, when they are large and round and compassionate, can leave a long strand washed clean of discord, the summer rain as it washes away the motionless dust can bring to a person's soul something like endless breathing."

Or this:

"In the split second when I saw the stem and the bud drop to the counter I intuited the essence of beauty....Because beauty consists of its own passing, just as we reach for it. It's the ephemeral configuration of things in the moment, when you can see both their beauty and their death."

If you're wondering about the title, it's Paloma's description of Renee: "Mme. Michele has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside, she's covered with quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary - and terribly elegant."


mxtodis123 said...

Ah, Julie, I'm with you. No more resolutions for me. What I did instead was list my accomplishments in 2009. Ironically, always at the head of my list was 'stop smoking' but I never made it past New Year's here I am entering 2010 as a non-smoker. That was at the top of my accomplishments.

Annie Jeffries said...

With the wisdom of age, I no longer make New Year's resolutions,

So far I am doing smashingly well.


Diana S said...

Happy New Year Julie, I also made no resolutions. I didn't want to disappoint myself. this year I'll play it by ear and just go about doing things that make me happy :) I read your other blog about people w/ no books in their home. I have had those kinds of thoughts too. How can anyone have no books ! I bought some for my sister every year for awhile and she still doesn't have one book on display in her house. where are they? I just can't ask her. it makes me crazy.

JoAnn ( Scene Through My Eyes) said...

A great book review - thanks so much!!!

Autumn Leaves said...

I found your first insights into this book immediately intriguing, Julie. I shall have to see if we have this book in the library. I also identify with misfits, especially your description of the 12 year old (Paloma, was it?). Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

gma said...

This book sounds like one I might like. You can't judge a book or a person by their cover. Great review.

Joyce said...

Well, the "cover" looks lovely and that's how I always "judge a book."
I'll have to remember to look for it.
No resolutions for me either...I have learned to "set reasonable goals."
Not to make resolutions that I just couldn't keep like..."learn Spanish and blah, blah, blah..." in a years time? Right.
I'm still working on my French and Spanish..:~)

Linda Byrd said...

Thanks for this! I almost bought this book the other day but talked myself out of it. I'm going back to the bookstore tomorrow. Also, I found your blog through Nina Bagley's blog. I must disagree with you, though -- I do not find your blog the least bit insipid and will drop in regularly from now on.

Mary said...

Julie, I'm having a difficult time with it but hoping it will be easier as I move through the chapters. I will finish it so am not reading your review right now - will come back to it later.

Hoping you aren't frozen solid in that weather out your way dear. It's very cold here, below freezing all week, but no snow - I quite love it this way, sunny, blue skies, bracing air and quite exhilerating. Remember now, I'm by no means a lover of hot Summer weather, this is more me.

I say I've made no resolutions however I do have 'plans'. Are they the same? Plans to get house projects done, plans to spend more time with friends and stop allowing my children to cause me stress and anguish! Plans to eat less - no not diet at this time in my life - but try to cut back a bit on the healthy food I consume, and of course walk more!

Meanwhile, let's throw another log on the fire, pour a glass of wine, pull on warm socks, and grab that's a good night for staying at home.
Hugs - Mary.

Shopgirl said...

I did not make any resolutions, it never works for me. I believe books and movies are the same when it comes to likes and dislikes. You either love it or hate it. I haven't do any real reading for awhile. I was so busy before the holidays and now with my house. Everything gets put aside for projects. I am busy on me right now, the pounds are coming off, but I have to keep my eye on the ball. So many bad habits to work through.
Love, Mary

Lila Rostenberg said...

No resolutions here! Except working always on gratitude and experiencing "contentment". I think "contentment" is my "word" for 2010.
I like your book review...I'm off to read some more of my Scottish series by Alexaner McCall Smith.
What a cozy book he can write!

A Bit of the Blarney said...

Thank you for the review. I will have to read this book. I, too, have learned that it is of no value to make resolutions. My success rate was pretty low. Now I do my best just to daily do my best. Some days that is none to good! You have a lovely blog! Cathy

Maggid said...

Thank you - for your beautiful site - and for the book tip. I'll be near a bookstore Thursday . . . I'll get my copy then . . . I'll remember to tell them YOU sold the book.
love & love,