Th Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
Muriel Barbery is a most interesting woman. She was born in Casablanca, Morocco, Africa but raised in France. Now she and her husband live in Japan. She is a professor of philosophy, as a result of which this book is not only very French in attitude, but also peppered with philosophical theories.
This is a very French book, both in subject and in the style of writing. That is why it is interesting that the book is so successful worldwide. It is beautifully written and has a delicacy of touch that is charming. “The Elegance of the Hedgehog,” is a best seller in France and several other countries and is an accessible book that flatters readers with its intellectual veneer.
Both create eloquent essays on time, beauty and the meaning of life, Renee with erudition and Paloma with adolescent gusto. Neither character realizes they share such similar views. They also share an interest in and affection for Japanese culture. Paloma adores reading manga, while Renée goes into raptures over an Ozu scene in which the violet mountains of Kyoto become a soul-saving vision of beauty.
It is the sharp-eyed Paloma who guesses that Renee has “the same simple refinement as the hedgehog,” quills on the outside but “fiercely solitary — and terribly elegant” within. Throughout the novel, these two narrators minds and engaging voices (translated by Alison Anderson) move the story along.
The lives of both characters perk up when the rich, charming and attentive Mr. Ozu moves into the building. His name alone is enough to tantalize Renee, and he does not disappoint her. His presence also brightens the book, adding emotion and an actual story. However, near the end, Renee and Paloma become friends and the author glides ahead even more buoyantly than before. Such philosophical fiction resolves some issues of life and death for its characters.
The shallower question of the international fate of this quirky French novel might also defy or reinforce just the sort of baguette and beret stereotypes Renee finds so obvious and so true: oh, those philosophical French! Personally, I did find the novel just a little too long and some of the allusions a bit too esoteric for ease of reading. It may well merit re-reading, but I doubt I will do so. However, I would read another book by Muriel Barbary.