Can a philosophical novel be fun to read?

Cover of "The Elegance of the Hedgehog"

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, and translated from the French by Alison Anderson, is told in first person by two characters. The main one, the widowed Madame Renee Michel, is an uneducated concierge for an upscale building in a french city who, despite her lack of formal education, loves to learn, and has therefore educated herself over the years through reading and exploring art and music. The other first person narrator is Paloma Josse, a precocious 12 year old who lives in the building with her parents, a sister, and a cat, and who resolves to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday (a number of months away) and burn down the building unless she finds something worth living for by then.

Madame Michel describes the manner in which she has hidden her intelligence from the occupants of the building for the 27 years she has worked for them. Paloma also hides her real self from her parents and her awful sister. Both of them explore aspects of society and philosophy through their thoughts. It quickly becomes obvious that they must eventually meet and that their meeting will change Paloma’s decision, because Madame Michel is secretly carrying on the rich life that Paloma doesn’t believe is possible. A new person who moves into the building becomes the agent of change for both narrators.

Using the first person device allows the author to talk about such wide ranging topics as grammar; vocabulary; what dress to wear on a date; our expectations about the roles we are born into and how that influences our behavior; kindness; the role of music, movies and art; and whether or not we have to become disillusioned when we become adults. This might seem rather heavy and impossible for a 325 page book (in the English translation), yet the book never lingers on any one topic and the slight bit of plot drew me along and kept me engaged. I really enjoyed the characters and the thoughts and distinct voices of the two narrators (who both speak beautifully).

My only gripe with the novel was the ending, which I won’t divulge. The author surely could have come up with something more novel, given the uniqueness of the rest of the story.

A friend highly recommended The Elegance of the Hedgehog to me, and I’m so glad she did. I’m passing her recommendation along to all of my readers. This translation, by the way, is amazing. Ms. Anderson appears to have conveyed the language and sense of the original with grace and beauty.

I love receiving comments. Please let me know what you think. Do you read books that move along gently with little conflict but get you to think, or do you prefer ones with more action and tension?

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  1. #1 by Tia Bach on December 7, 2012 - 6:10 pm

    My book club read this. Although I appreciated the novel, especially as a confessed word lover/snob, at times it came across as condescending. But overall I was impressed. And I love the title!

    • #2 by annstanleywriting on December 7, 2012 - 8:18 pm

      I’ve lived in France, so I’ve experienced the concierge system a little bit. The book threw me right back into that world (although we sure didn’t have a concierge in the building I lived in).

  2. #3 by annerallen on December 3, 2012 - 10:12 pm

    Thanks for the thoughtful, intelligent review. I’ll put it on my TBR list. I came over from Kristen Lamb’s blog. I’m so much with you that we need to revive the body acceptance movement of the 1990s. It got killed by the diet industry, and we’re all less healthy because of the way they make us hate our normal-sized bodies.

    • #4 by annstanleywriting on December 3, 2012 - 10:33 pm

      What the media does to the image of women is sad (and we aren’t just talking body-image). Now that we have more woman in the Senate, it’s time to make it acceptable and safe to be a strong, healthy, intelligent woman.

  3. #5 by Julia on November 21, 2012 - 1:44 pm

    This is a book I am planning to read. I love thought-provoking books and I also cherish characters I can identify with. Interesting post.

  4. #7 by KM Huber on November 15, 2012 - 12:54 pm

    Really nice review; I didn’t like the ending, either! I thought the book a bit plodding but really liked its premise.


    • #8 by annstanleywriting on November 15, 2012 - 1:31 pm

      I haven’t reviewed them, but I read a couple of novels by Deborah Harkness right before this one. I couldn’t put them down and got way behind on my sleep, so it was nice to read something less full of danger and adventure that was perhaps a little plodding (I put it more nicely as a gentle tempo).

    • #9 by annstanleywriting on November 15, 2012 - 3:18 pm

      The ending falls into the category: “oops, this novel is getting to be too long, better stop now,” which is sad since the rest of the novel is very nice.

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