The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Muriel Barbery
Translated from the French by Alison Anderson

Europa Editions

In our world, that’s the way you live your grown-up life: you must constantly rebuild your identity as an adult, the way it’s been put together it is wobbly, ephemeral, and fragile, it cloaks despair and, when you’re alone in front of the mirror, it tells you the lies you need to believe … I find this a fascinating phenomenon: the ability we have to manipulate ourselves so that the foundation of our beliefs is never shaken.

                from The Elegance of the Hedgehog



Contemplative page-turner captures the joy of finding a kindred spirit

This is an unlikely candidate for an international bestseller: not much of a plot, little action, and the two main characters are hardly the stuff of great literary heroines—

Madame Michel, a cheerless concierge, by her own description, fat, ugly and fifty-four, and Paloma, a precocious twelve year-old, “ripe for despair," planning her suicide.

Living in the same building, both are hiding who they really are: Paloma dumbs down to her peers’ level, while Madame Michel plays the television loudly so people think she is mindlessly ensconced on her couch, while actually immersing herself in the delights of art that moves one to tears.

The life of the mind, for all its riches, is inherently a lonely life. Reading this, I was reminded of Emily Dickinson’s poem that begins:

I’m nobody. Who are you?
Are you nobody too?
Then there’s a pair of us.
Don’t tell—they’d banish us, you know.

A mordantly humorous satire, the book moves between the musings of a very bright, very observant pre-teen, offering her “profound thought for the day” (“We mustn’t forget … that a lifespan is pathetically short, one day you’re twenty and the next day you’re eighty”) and the reclusive concierge’s reveries (“We cannot cease desiring, and this is our glory, and our doom. Desire! It carries us and crucifies us …”) Both are highly attuned to the human comedy as we make “our laughable way through life.”

Then, into their lives comes Monsieur Ozu, a refined Japanese gentleman who not only mirrors elegance, but in a way, bestows it. Madame Michel reflects: “This morning … I was surprised to discover that I am not who I thought I was.”

I have a theory as to why this book is so popular: I think it speaks of a particular kind of outsider, the pretender wearing his or her banal camouflage, trying to blend in; and testifies to the power of art—whether literature, painting, film, or music—to resurrect, re-invent, and rescue one from the insanity and absurdity of the everyday workaday world.

Not a compulsive page-turner like those other titles on the bestselling list, with their pierced, tattooed hacker heroines, or vampire boyfriends, Hedgehog is more a contemplative page-turner, capturing the loneliness of the long distance thinker, and that sublime joy—deeper than love—when one discovers a kindred spirit (Then there’s a pair of us), and for a moment one is no longer alone.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (July 15-August 14, 2010). Reprinted with permission.