the elegance of the hedgehog

It seems to me that in recent months the hedgehog has become the hipster pet of choice. I’ve seen this picture on almost every website I frequently visit:

baby hedgehog

I’ll admit that a baby hedgehog is fairly cute. I’m not sure how much I’d thought of hedgehogs until recently with their rise as popular pets and of course this book entering my world –

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

I can admit, without reservation, and despite the year not having fully drawn to a close, that this is my favourite book of 2011. According to I’ve read about 51 books so far this year, or 13,750 pages. A lot of them were read for classes but since May they’ve all been for pleasure or curiosity. This one drew my attention out of sheer curiosity.

I’ll admit that I am a cover judger. That’s all a book really has to recommend itself if you are not familiar with the author. While I understand the lesson of the adage I do think that choosing books based upon their covers (and subsequently the summary either on the dust jacket or back) are perfectly acceptable ways to choose books. This book did not let me down. The cover reminded me a bit of this cover of The Westing Game

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

which I greatly enjoyed.

The two stories don’t have too much in common, other than being about a group of people who live in a certain building together. In TEOTH we have two narrators – first, Renee, a woman in her 50s who serves as the building’s concierge (the story is set in Paris). Second, Paloma, a pre-teen resident of the building. Both are burdened with higher than average intelligence and the desire to keep their intelligence hidden. Renee records her thoughts and the happenings of the day out of a sort of loneliness after losing her husband. Paloma records events and thoughts that help her decipher a reason for continuing to live in a world full of so much disappointment. It sounds rather dreary, I know, but God, the characters are so quirky and lovable you just find yourself attaching to them and waiting to see what they’ll say next.

This book a tough read due to the verbiage and content. Both narrators reference things that made me constantly grateful the internet existed. I Google’d so many things during this read… I even had to bust out the Dictionary app on my phone a few times because context was not enough to help me determine the meaning of some of the words. Here, just take a gander at this quote in the “Praise” section before the novel –

“A richly suggestive novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog traces a wide arc as it pursues the peccadilloes of contemporary society and portrays our pitiable primate preoccupations (sex, territory, hierarchy) with humor and erudition… But the invincible appeal of this book is in its formidably charming characters and in the multitude of intelligent reflections on pets, burnt out cars, learning and scholarship, and much more.” – Nouvel Observateur (France)

I’ll wait a few moments for your head to stop spinning.


Ok, really. That’s just in the praise section. On several occasions I was tempted to abort the project of reading this book because it took me so long. But I am so glad that I stuck it out. I copied out a couple passages (that I would have just underlined if the book belonged to me) and I’ll share this one with you. It’s from an observation Paloma makes near the end of the book. I ended up liking Renee’s narratives a bit better due to their lack of melodrama… but Paloma definitely hits some deep stuff. See for yourself –

So here is my profound thought for the day: this is the first time I have met someone who seeks out people and who sees beyond… We never look beyond our assumptions and, what’s worse, we have given up trying to meet others; we just meet ourselves. We don’t recognize each other because other poeple have become our permanent mirrors.

Talk about a slap in the face to narcissism. I read that passage on September 21st. On the same day TWLOHA tweeted a quote by Lord Chesterfield that was surprisingly fitting –

TWLOHA tweet

That’s just one little nugget. There are so many other beautiful comments about philosophy, and the desire to learn, the beauty of movement, and the responsibility of the educated to defend Truth and Beauty and Language, and fear.

I finally finished the book late one evening at home in bed. As I read the final pages I felt, stronger than I ever have before, the sadness of finishing a book. I was truly sorry that I would not have the experience of reading this book for the first time ever again. And I wondered who would read it so that I could discuss it with them. I want to own it and read it annually. I want to write something like it one day that so captures a reader. It really is inspiring and heartbreaking and wonderful. It’s hopeful. Two people that feel completely isolated and so peculiar discover community. I felt a sense of belonging. I connected so strongly to this book and the ideas expressed by it.

Favourite of 2011. Now, go find a copy. Take your time and absorb it. Then we can talk about what makes a hedgehog truly elegant and why it matters. I can’t wait.


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