The Elegance of the Hedgehog tells the story of a life spent in hiding. Madame Michel is the concierge of a luxurious Parisian apartment building, tending to the plants, signing for packages, and polishing the brass, retreating when she can to her rooms on the first floor. She keeps a television blaring where the tenants can hear it; she zealously polices her speech and gestures to keep from giving herself away. What is the secret she hides? Madame Michel is an intellectual. She knows Kant, but she's separated by class from other people who do, so she discusses his work with herself while we listen in. Her musings are voiced by Barbara Rosenblat, who lends an air of theatrical irony an auditory raised eyebrow to her descriptions of class blind spots and philosophical rabbit holes.
The other pole of the story is Paloma Josse, a 12-year-old tenant in the building, voiced by Cassandra Morris with an appropriate measure of sarcasm and outrage. Paloma is a wildly precocious girl raised in privilege who has all the gifts of intellect and all the faults of a pre-adolescent. She's grandiose she favors us with excerpts from a journal titled "Profound Thoughts". She's happy to throw stones at glass houses, and even plans to burn hers down, with the aim of teaching her family a pithy lesson about deprivation. She describes the currently deprived in terms that, while well-intentioned, condescend and distort. She is, in other words, a burgeoning intellect in serious need of the influence of an adult she can respect. An adult, perhaps, like the 54-year-old concierge on the first floor. But it takes more than a ride in an elevator to truly meet a woman who has spent her life in hiding. The novel takes two world views, both meticulously constructed from sound philosophical materials, and happily pulls them apart. Rosalie Knecht
Renee Michel is the 54-year-old concierge of a luxury Paris apartment building. Her exterior (short, ugly,and plump) and demeanor (poor, discreet, and insignificant) belie her keen, questing mind and profound erudition. Paloma Josse is a 12-year-old genius who behaves as everyone expects her to behave: a mediocre pre-teen high on adolescent subculture, a good but not outstanding student, an obedient if obstinate daughter. She plans to kill herself on the 16th of June, her 13th birthday.
Both Renee and Paloma hide their true talents and finest qualities from the bourgeois families around them, until a wealthy Japanese gentleman named Ozu moves into building. Only he sees through them, perceiving the secret that haunts Renee, winning Paloma's trust, and helping the two discover their kindred souls. Moving, funny, tender, and triumphant, Barbery's novel exalts the quiet victories of the inconspicuous among us.
©2006 Editions Gallimard, Paris; (P)2009 Highbridge Company
"Gently satirical, exceptionally winning and inevitably bittersweet." (The Washington Post )
"An exquisite book in the form of a philosophical fable that has enchanted hundreds of thousands of readers." (Italian Elle)
"Kinetic minds and engaging voices." (New York Times Book Review)
"By turns very funny and heartbreaking". (Publishers Weekly)
The language. It was a beautiful story to listen to. It's actually fairly astonishing, for a translation to have been so deftly handled!
I thought Barbara had the absolute best range, ready to carry her character through the terrific transition. She was wonderful. Cassandra Morris drove spikes through my ears.
I really didn't like it - I was frustrated and annoyed - for the first third of the book. I detested all the characters. I was so put off by their judgment and disdain for everyone around them. I really had to battle through that, and was pleased to eventually see the story develop so that I could understand that.
I never did really like the 13-year-old angst or buy into it, but the rest of the story was terrific.
While the narrators were very good, the story wasn't something I could finish. It just didn't work for me despite really wanting to like it. I abandoned this one.
Readers were fine. Story, plot, and character development were sorely lacking.
The entire first book. Nothing consequential happened until the last couple chapters.
Lacking protagonists and scenarios which incited change in main characters. No significant change in setting. Plot was drawn out for no apparent reason.
This is the kind of styles I like: good pace, cerebral, well-documented, meaty, mind-bending.
An interesting experiment, this a blend of many flavors:
- part social commentary, the way of life and futility of the French bourgeoisie,
- part coming-of-age, the life of young but spunky Paloma.
- part philosophy, the inner thoughts of the intellectually muscular Renee
- part romance, the nascent love story between a concierge and a handsome older gentleman.
I so much this had worked. The main characters have flesh, the environment of the concierge in a high-standing building has potential and the writing is lively. Yet, in the end, the blend is not successful mainly because these four main topics do not blend in any meaningful way. I'll give here a few illustrative examples.
1. Renee's romance is entirely taken from the booklet of pink literature: the poor misunderstood maiden, the rich handsome man, the artificial crisis, etc. (and of course, on top of this, the ingenuity toward these affairs that only a pink novel could come up with).
2. The thoughts about culture or philosophy often stated by Renee and sometimes by Paloma have absolutely no connection to the rest of narrative, and they mostly appear as completely random thoughts that could have just been placed in any order, or even outside of the book.
3. Whether coming-of-age or social commentary, the intrigue is completely static. The entire character set do not change, at all. They remain true at the end to what they were at the beginning.
Finally, to complete this disappointment, it becomes quickly apparent that there are only two characters that exist in the novel, the rest being mere reflections. Now, that would be fine until, after very little time reading, one realizes that Paloma and Renee are just the same character. It just does not ring true.. So much potential for a great book wasted by poor writing!
Story has an interesting format: older woman and young girl expostulating on life. Voice acting was good. But I thought it was somewhat pretentious and I got bored.
I'm not ruining the plot here b/c this is in the first few pages, but it's about a suicidal 9 yr old girl and her boring landlady. One of the worst books ever!
The performance is unbelievably annoying due to the grating and obnoxious voice of the child narrator. I'd rather shoot myself than listen to this girl ever again.
I'm not turned off from the genre but I'll be sure to be more careful about which narrators I choose.
Mostly the language I found pretentious which marred what might otherwise be an engaging story.
The two leads. Both of them insufferable. I endured listening for 90 minutes, against my better judgement. I knew after the second chapter this book was a poor choice.
Little bit crazy but prefer the term eccentric. I am a recluse by nature so I live for my books and the friends I find within their pages.
I read this book because it was recommended to me and I loved it. It is a thinking persons book not for those looking for an escape from reality. Smart, funny and very sad. Characters you become invested in as you follow their journey. Have purchased 3 copies and sent to friends for christmas presents.
I do recommend this book. The characters are well drawn and the setting is vivid. It is easy to listen. The task of the three protagonists is, I'd say, to learn to reveal themselves and while they are not sweet or charming exactly, the result is a bitter-sweet and charming tale.
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