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2008 Books in Translation

The Elegance of the Hedgehog – Muriel Barbery

Translated from the French by Alison Anderson

I had seen nothing but praise for this book in the blogging world, so was keen to find out why everyone raves about it.  Unfortunately the book failed to live up to expectations, so I am going explain why I just didn’t get this book at all.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is set in Paris and focuses on Renée, a concierge with a secret passion for culture. Living in the same apartment building is Paloma, a suicidal twelve-year-old. The outlook of both women is changed when one of their privileged neighbours dies.

The book started off very slowly, but I was prepared for that. I had seen several reviews that described the beginning as being uninspiring, but they assured me that after 100 pages I would be completely hooked. I admit that it did pick up a bit towards the end, but instead of falling in love with the characters I found myself being increasingly wound up by them. Was I the only one who found the characters very annoying? I didn’t understand why Renée needed to keep her passions hidden and found the whole idea of her pretending to watch television ridiculous.

Paloma was equally annoying. I struggle to believe that anyone, let alone a twelve-year-old girl, would come out with phrases like:

The most intelligent among them turn their malaise into a religion: oh, the despicable vacuousness of bourgeois existence!

The book was packed with profound statements, but there were so many that it felt contrived. It was as though a philosophy text book had been regurgitated and disguised as a novel.

The words were also ridiculously long and obscure – all those syllables meant that the flow of the text was continually broken up. I don’t think I have ever read a book in which I have had to use a dictionary so often, and I think I have a pretty good vocabulary – it just came across as pretentious.

The only reason I finished the book was so I could assure myself that it was the same all the way to the end. In previous years I would have given up within 20 pages, so if you find yourself agreeing with me then I recommend you save yourself a few hours and find something else to read.

This is a fantastic choice for book clubs, as it is bound to divide people, but I’m afraid that I’m on the side of those who dislike this book.

Please can you explain why you love this book?

Did you enjoy every single word?

79 replies on “The Elegance of the Hedgehog – Muriel Barbery”

I didn’t really enjoy this book either – I readi t before I had discovered blogging – two of my colleagues were raving about it. I struggled through it too – the plot didn’t grip me and I found the writing style annoying (although I wondered whether it was the translation). Phew – relieved to know I’m not the only one!!

Verity, I’m surprised that you didn’t enjoy it, as I thought it would be the sort of thing you’d love.

I did wonder if it was a translation problem, but I think the pretentiousness matched the philosophy, so I don’t think it is.

It is good to know I’m not alone!

I think I am one of the last people who has read this. I am still really intrigued by it partly as I still have no idea what the premise is.

I actually almost put it as one of my nominations for the Not The Book Group but then thought was a bit obvious as everyone seems to have read it and raved about it. Can see if there are two camps it would be a much more interesting discussion. Will get round to this one eventually.

No Simon, you aren’t the last because I haven’t read it either. I’ve been hesitant based on the reviews I’ve read. Yes, they have been good reviews, but it seems people have really had to WORK to like it. There are plenty of books out there that are effortlessly lovable. After doing battle with the wills of my children all day, I like my reading to be a little less like work.

Simon, The premise is very simple really. I think that is another reason I didn’t enjoy it – I prefer a complex plot.

I look forward to finding out whether you like this book or not!

I’m not surprised that you didn’t enjoy it, Jackie; it doesn’t seem like your type of book.

The philosophy can grate after a while but I didn’t find it pretentious and enjoyed its literary style. This book spoke to me and, as I said in my review of it, I think I read it at the right time.

It was only inadvertently that Pierre Arthens’ death brought Renee and Paloma together; it was through Kakuro Ozu that they became friends and I loved the way their relationships with each other were shown.

I’m shocked that you would normally give up on a book after twenty pages; it depends on the book but I give a book at least forty to fifty pages as it’s unfair to judge it completely on an opening where the scene is still set. I feel sad for the people who “agree with” you based on the quotes you have chosen as they will miss out on a book that they potentially could find beautiful and life-affirming. No, it’s not for everyone but I always make up my own mind.

Claire, I wouldn’t normally give up a book after 20 pages – in fact I don’t think I have done that for years, but I knew after 20 pages this book wasn’t for me – the writing style grated on me after just a couple of pages. I managed to make it to the end of this book, so didn’t give up on it. I hope that people are able to make up their own mind about whether the things that annoyed me would bother them, but just advised that if you find yourself being annoyed after 20 pages then it probably won’t get much better.

We have very different taste in some books, but I think the comments will prove that more people love this book than loathe it.

Jackie, apologies – I reread your paragraph about the twenty pages and realised that you are recommending that anyone who feels the same as you after reading the book shouldn’t continue with it; I read it as anyone who agreed with you about the pretentiousness and wordiness (without examples) shouldn’t read the book! My bad.

Claire, I’ve given up on books too before twenty pages as sometimes it’s just not the right time. How can we guage the writing style of a novel without reading that first paragraph, which is something I always do when I obtain a new book or browsing in a shop.

Claire, I meant that anyone who finds the writing style irritating reading after 20 pages should consider giving up. I agree that noone should avoid the book based on my review. I know I am in the minority and am a very fussy reader.

Jackie, My opinions of this book are closely aligned with what Claire said in the previous comment. What I love about reading your blog is that you often hate books I loved, and love books I hated. And yet when I read your reviews, I can see your point of view! You state your case so well and it really opens my mind.

Laura, Thank you for your comments. I am pleased that I have managed to explain why I didn’t like the book. One of my biggest problems with many blogs is that they just give book reports, but don’t explain why (or sometimes even if!) they liked the book. I’m glad I am managing to put my views across and hope we can continue to find many more books that we both love!

I did feel there were a lot of profound statements – but like Claire above, I found them to be beautiful and life-affirming rather than ridiculous and improbable. I assumed Renee pretended to be boring to avoid attention mainly. She knew she’d become the object of ridicule for who she really was if she revealed her avid scholarship, so she hid behind TV and dumbed-down language. And she’d learned that attention from rich people is a Bad Thing, so she avoided it at all costs. I can see your points in general, though, I guess they just didn’t affect me so much!

Meghan, I can almost see why she would tone down her passion for culture in work, but in her own home it just seemed silly. Noone really knows what you are doing in your house, so I don’t see why someone would pretend to watch TV. Noone is going to walk past a flat and say ‘that person isn’t watching TV so they must be very cultured and therefore annoying’

I must be sensitive to these things – I’m pleased that you enjoyed it.

This one hasn’t made it to my wish list, and I’m not so sue it will ever get there! And Claire: I really wasn’t interested in this one to begin with, so I’m not making a decision based on only one opinion.

I agree with Claire (about the book speaking to her and enjoying its literary style) and Laura (the whole you like a book, she hates it, and vice versa) – I feel the same way about the book and also about your reviews (sometimes I dislike the books you love and vice versa, but regardless I love how you are able to make your point come across so well that I can totally understand why you loved or hated the book. With Hedgehog, I absolutely loved this book and found it to be clever and sincere in its message about relationships and life; but at the same time I can totally get what you mean with regards to all the philosophy and Renee’s need to act so uncultured (well what the tenants would deem to be uncultured). However, I found this to be one of my favorite reads last year and it is a book that I am always recommending to friends and family. Its just such a wonderful read that I felt truly engages with the reader. Thanks for your honest review – I always look forward to them. Cheers!!

Nadia, Thank you for the nice comments. I often find that I have a very different taste in books to some of my favourite blogs, but there is always an overlap of some that we all enjoy.

I’m pleased that you were able to connect with the characters so well. I want to read a book about the different way in which we all perceive literature now!

I really enjoyed this book. I thought it was different, which made it a nice treat. I didn’t understand why Renee behaved the way she did either, but as a whole it didn’t bother me. I’m sorry you didn’t like this book!

The log and excessive big words might be a problem of the translation. I enjoyed it because I needed a change of pace when I picked up this book, which was actually recommended by a friend who went to a different book club. I thought it was a very simple story with characters who were out of place with the world and yet illustrates a very simple thing in life: relationship. It’s an allegory.

I really enjoyed this book. It’s not perfect and took a bit of getting into, and it’s very overtly French (!). I admit, I didn’t question why Paloma was wise beyond her years or why Renee hid her cleverness, I just tried to immerse myself in their lives.

The book really took off for me in the second half. The scenes where Renee is getting ready for her big date are lovely and frothy, and the bit where she tells about the last time she went to the cinema with her husband was brilliant. In the end I was wiping away a tear and not wanting it to end.

Annabel, I agree that the book did improve in the second half, but I couldn’t forget about how much the characters had annoyed me (and the writing was still annoying!) If anything it was a bit too sentimental for me – I should have added overly sentimental to my criticisms above! I’m impressed that this book managed to move you to tears – that is a sign of a good book.

Jackie.. I did find the characters annoying to some point, and the writing a bit pretentious.. BUT I thought it all contibuted to the charm of the book, and did not at all hinder me from completely enjoying it. The philosophic musings spoke to me and the overall style was easy without being shallow. In short, I can understand why you feel that way but I liked that they had those qualities. Renee was meant to be unlikeable, she says so from the very beginning. I also by the way guessed that you wouldn’t like this. :)

kiss a cloud, I knew that Renne was supposed to be unlikeable, but I’m afraid that I need to love characters in a book. I’m pleased that you enjoyed the philosophic musings – they were too much for me, but perhaps I’m just not philosophic enough! I’m a science fan, so many of these musings have no appeal to me.

While I’ve yet to read this, I have also heard mainly praise for it. It’s nice to see some criticism of it as I was struggling with my actual decision to read it. Do you think the translation was part of the reason for it sounding so contrived? Perhaps I should wait for another translation. If only I could read french!

Sorry it didn’t live up to expectation!

She, I have no idea as I don’t read French, but it does seem as though the lengthy words are a translation issue. I would have thought you’d be waiting a long time for another translation – it might be quicker to learn the language!!

Jackie, I know everyone raves about this book, but I think I would have a similar reaction to you. You know that I don’t particularly care if characters are likable, but for me they have to be believable, and I think I would have issues with that in this book. Also, I don’t tend to like overly philosophical books and just generally haven’t had the best of luck with the contemporary French literature I’ve tried. The more reviews of this one I read, the more certain I become that it would probably not be a good fit for me. Thanks for your honest review!

Steph, I don’t like to admit it, but I haven’t liked any French book I’ve read so far. I’m sure the right one is out there somewhere, but all the ones I’ve read have been disappointing so far. Let me know if you find any good ones!

I loved this book and said why here: http://necromancyneverpays.blogspot.com/2009/07/elegance-of-hedgehog.html

You find out towards the end of the book why Renee feels she has to hide what she is; she has a deeply odd family.

When I looked around at reviews of this book, I found several reviewers who agree with you about the pretentious diction. I think the story is about precision of articulation, among other things, so ordinary words wouldn’t convey the precise idea, in most cases.

Jeanne, I don’t think having an odd family is a good excuse for being so weird. Lots of people have weird families, but they don’t behave in the same way as her.

I take your point about the precise diction, but I don’t think the long words were used in the original French version, so it could have worked without them.

Judging from your review and quotation, I would say pretentious is a pretty accurate term for it.

I don´t mind foriegn words the least, I actually like learning new words when I read, but they must be there for a reason, not just to alienate the reader.

Dorte, I don’t mind long words, but there were so many that it did come across as pretentious. Even when I knew the meaning I couldn’t understand why someone would want to write a sentence containing so many of them – especially when it was supposed to be a 12-year-old saying them.

Jackie, you said:

I struggle to believe that anyone, let alone a twelve-year-old girl, would come out with phrases like:

“The most intelligent among them turn their malaise into a religion: oh, the despicable vacuousness of bourgeois existence!”

I thought: this is a French book. Aren’t all French twelve year olds budding philosophers? (Humorous inflection required here.)

Joking aside, your original post and the comments it has generated suggest to me that I don’t need to be in any hurry to read this one.

Anyone looking for something a little lighter, translated from French and with a Parisien setting could do a lot worse than try the Victor Legris Mysteries. Written by two sisters under the pen name of Claude Izner, they are published in the UK by Gallic Books, the same house responsible for The Elegance of the Hedgehog. The first is called The Eiffel Tower Mystery. Having a penchant for historical mysteries I enjoyed it, and its follow up. Book bloggers might like the fact that Legris is a bookseller turned sleuth. It must be said, however, that this series appears to have divided readers almost as much as Hedgehog.

David, I saw the Victor Legris Mysteries and was intrigued by them, but my problem with French literature has led me to be wary of them. It is good to hear that you enjoyed them and I am intrigued by the bookseller element, but I think I’ll leave them for now. My TBR pile is big enough already!

I’m still not sure whether I would like this or not. I read some reviews that convince me I would, and then others that I wouldn’t. And it doesn’t seem to correspond to whether the reviewer actually liked it. I suppose the only way to find out is to read it, and I do tend to like things with a philosophical slant, but I’ve just got something holding me back from this.

Jo, If you like some philosophy in your books then you might like this one. I recommend giving it a try – I think you’ll know very quickly whether you’ll enjoy it or not.

Uum I have this on my TBR list this year. I’m scared of the flowery vocabularies. The last books that I struggled with the vocabs were Lolita and the Atonement. Do you know how they would compare to this book?

mee, I’m afraid I haven’t read Lolita or Atonement so can’t compare them, but I wouldn’t describe the langue of Hedgehog as flowery. It is over complicated, like reading a textbook gone wrong, but not overly descriptive.

I’ve stayed away from this one even though I have heard lots of good things about it and it is set in Paris (my reading destination of the moment!). After reading your review I know this is not the book for me – thanks Jackie!

I didn’t like it unreservedly – I’m thinking it might improve for me upon rereading. I struggled for a while to connect with the characters, but what worked for me, in the end, was their connection to each other. For much of the book Paloma and Renee are so separate from everyone else that I didn’t care about them much. The moments that they had together, I thought, were nice. But yeah, I skimmed some parts of it that were too philosophy-flourish-y.

Jenny, There is no way I’d re-read this book! I can see why reading the beginning again after connecting with the characters might help though. I hope you enjoy it if you do decide to re-read.

Oh well… I did like this one and a few paragraphs spoke really loudly to me but I can certainly see why this book would not be for everyone (especially with regard to style). Strangely, when I like a novel as much as I did this one I usually rush out and buy the writer’s next novel but have not felt this way with Barbery. As to why, there is definitely something there for me to ponder…

I note that you are currently reading Cutting for Stone – this was one of my top reads from last year – I hope it is treating you better than “The Hedgehog”!

Samantha, The Gourmet actually appeals to me a lot more than this one, but I thought it was best to start with Hedgehog.

Cutting for Stone is a lot better thanks! I haven’t read much yet, but I can see how it could become a favourite.

It must have something going for it, given it has spent 52 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. I have a copy, sent to me courtesy of the publisher, so I will read it at some point and make up my own mind. I can’t believe so many people read your review and then say they’re going to skip reading it. Not to take anything away from you, Jackie, as you are entitled to your opinion, but I’d like to think other people would read it for themselves before declaring in a public forum that it’s not for them. If I was the author, I’d be furious seeing people say that! I know that in my day job it riles me no end when people cast criticism on my publication and then it emerges that they haven’t actually read it in 10 years! Sorry for the rant ;-)

kimbofo, I would be shocked if a stranger refused to consider the book based on my review, but the great thing about book blogging is that you build up a relationship with other bloggers – you get to know their tastes and how much they match your own.

Taking Steph for example – we have a very similar taste in books and if she found a book in which she hated the characters and found it full of philosophy then I wouldn’t hesitate to scratch it off my list. I already have 100s of books in my TBR pile, the quality of the books I read is improving all the time and that is because I listen to the opinions of those I trust for book recommendations, avoid those that I probably wouldn’t enjoy and rush out to buy ones that trusted bloggers like Steph recommend.

Sorry to hear it annoys you, but I think it is one of the main benefits of blogging.

Jackie – I left thess responses on my blog with your comment too. I like your set-up here. I’ll check in again.

Part I:
I have yet to read it in French, but although the philosophy bits were slightly academic, that language is almost the same in English as it is in French, so it doesn’t actually scare me.

I would not call it wordy – it was quite short and even spare, I thought, rather than ornamented with words.

I even think there is a relationship between the style of the book and the Japan-ophilia of the characters (not to mention that of the writer, who now lives in Japan). Beauty from cutting away distractions, plain-ness (maybe I should say simplicity) but not dullness. I love things Japanese too, and have even practiced a little of the modern ikebana to explore creating that effect.

I will be getting the book and reading it in French soon. I’ll be sure to report on that in my blog. Stay tuned.

Part II:
On just a little further thought, the words were interesting, and perhaps even challenging, but there were not too many of them. It is the too-many effect that I would consider wordiness, rather than the complexity of the individual words. Maybe that’s also part of the explanation of why we seem to have judged it differently. That’s why ikebana is beautiful (according to me), just a few flowers, but in a radical shape.

Souci, Thank you for getting back to me. I am very intrigued by the French version now, so look forward to your thoughts after you’ve read it.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a short book, but the length and obscurity of the words meant that I had difficulty with it. Are the French words in every day use, or would you have to look up the meaning of many of them?

I love Japanese literature and didn’t realise that the author now lives in Japan – the Japaneseness did not come across to me when reading it.

i totally agree with you on the point of Renée pretending to watch TV. To be honest, I couldn’t really see why she was so terrified that people would find out she was clever in the first place. She was a bit of a bore too – she couldn’t seem to get through a sentence without a literary reference!

I had this book recommended to me by a dear (I think) friend. She actually went so far as to say it was ‘me’. I now doubt her and the apparent 2.5 million other readers of this book. It is appalling. I read on in horror, searching for its saving grace, and I find nothing but more irritating gratiuitous pretensiousness. So I googled to see if I was the only one who hates the book and hurrah! Like all of you here, I am very relieved to discover I’m not “the only one”. The world contains sane people after all. Bless Muriel Barbery (I’m sure her surname is pun “not intended”), I’m happy for her and her commercial success – but count me out. The elegance of the hedgehog is self-indulgent and self-conscious drivel. Sorry Muriel.

Dudu, Thank you for commenting on my blog for the first time :-) I’m really pleased that you are able to be reassured that you aren’t alone! Perhaps it would be a good idea not to take book recommendations from that friend anymore ;-)

Hello Jackie,

I begin my journey in your French section by this title.

First of all, even if I haven’t read the English translation, I can tell you that the points you underline in your review are true even in French (hence you understand that I have not liked this novel ;) ).

Second, this book seems a good choice for discussion because either people love it, or they can’t bear it. When I have written my ‘not-very-enthousiastic’ review after having read the book for a jury (at this time, the French blogs were all praising the book), it has been like a earthquake. People who had loved the book went mad at me and others said how they were relieved not to be alone and how they hadn’t dare to publish a ‘naughty’ review (something I can’t understand since as long as you explain why you haven’t like the book, you’re allowed to have an opinion without feeling embarrassed…).

Third : why Renée hides her passion for culture. It is one of the numerous clichés this book is full of (some of them are only obvious for a French reader). A concierge is not supposed to be well-read! It is right that in a bourgeois environment this idea is still strong but Muriel Barbery makes up a character (and a story) that is too much the contrary of this strong belief: between a stupid concierge and a concierge speaking like a philosophy teacher, a little bit of subtlety would have been welcomed.
Culture is an everlasting battlefield in France.

This book made me feel intelligent one minute, and then stupid the next three minutes. I did enjoy thinking about philosophy for the first time since my college days. Especially the idea that we often do not get past our own preconceptions when we meet people for the first time. We often just see what we expect to see.

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