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Love it or Hate it? The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery


Have you ever noticed how some books seem to drive a wedge between people? You check the reviews and find almost no middle-of-the-road ratings. Instead people either seem to love it or hate it. Welcome to the Love it or Hate it post! Each month, we’ll pick one book to review and two contributors will battle it out to convince you to pick it up or throw it out. Last time we discussed The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt. For the first time since starting this feature, the “Hate it/don’t want to read it” people won with 58% of the vote! Many thanks to our reviewers for their awesome reviews. Our very own Book Worm was the Love it Reviewer and Zombie Kitten was our Hate it Reviewer.

This month’s selection is yet another of Boxall’s 1001 Books to Read Before you Die: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. Read the reviews and let us know whether either of the reviewers managed to convince you. I do have strong feelings about this book but I’ll leave it up to you to guess whether I loved it or hated it (I was not one of the reviewers).


The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbary
First published in: 2006
Find it/buy it here: The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Synopsis (from Amazon): We are in the center of Paris, in an elegant apartment building inhabited by bourgeois families. Renée, the concierge, is witness to the lavish but vacuous lives of her numerous employers. Outwardly she conforms to every stereotype of the concierge: fat, cantankerous, addicted to television. Yet, unbeknownst to her employers, Renée is a cultured autodidact who adores art, philosophy, music, and Japanese culture. With humor and intelligence she scrutinizes the lives of the building’s tenants, who for their part are barely aware of her existence.

Then there’s Paloma, a twelve-year-old genius. She is the daughter of a tedious parliamentarian, a talented and startlingly lucid child who has decided to end her life on the sixteenth of June, her thirteenth birthday. Until then she will continue behaving as everyone expects her to behave: a mediocre pre-teen high on adolescent subculture, a good but not an outstanding student, an obedient if obstinate daughter.

Paloma and Renée hide both their true talents and their finest qualities from a world they suspect cannot or will not appreciate them. They discover their kindred souls when a wealthy Japanese man named Ozu arrives in the building. Only he is able to gain Paloma’s trust and to see through Renée’s timeworn disguise to the secret that haunts her. This is a moving, funny, triumphant novel that exalts the quiet victories of the inconspicuous among us.

LOVE IT (Reviewer A): I read this book several years ago, and while I don’t remember all the details, I do remember how much I loved it.  I can understand why it won’t appeal to some people, but it is a book that touched me in many different ways and to me, that is always a good reason to love a book.

The book is told in diary format from the perspective of two people who could not be more different. Yet underneath their public faces are two people who could not be more alike. While Renee and Paloma live in the same building, they seldom come in contact and we only learn of their inner lives through their diary entries. When Kakura Ozu, a new tenant in their building, enters their lives everything changes.

Why did I love this book? First and foremost is the writing. I am a fan of epistolary novels. Through letters or diary entries there is a greater sense of the person by seeing the world through the eyes of the letter or diary writer. I love how two people can have the same experience and see it completely differently. Who is right or wrong? Realistic or delusional? Through their personal musings we learn that nobody is completely right or wrong. Through the diary entries we become one with the writer of the diary. It gives us an intimate look into the way their mind works. It gives voices to those we often do not ‘see’.

Second to the writing are the characters. Renee, Paloma and Ozu are rich characters that we can like, dislike, agree with, disagree with and still care about. It can be a juggling act, yet the author never loses sight of who these people are and neither do we the readers.

I love books that make you think, sometimes very deep thoughts and then make you laugh out loud. And in the case of this particular book, it can also make you achingly sad with a story that can break your heart into a million tiny pieces.

I can understand that some people may not like this book.  It is very heavy handed on the philosophical discussions, and that can get a little tiresome. But for me that wasn’t an issue and to have been able to spend a few days with Renee, Paloma and Ozu it was well worth the journey.

So I unashamedly loved this book.

HATE IT (Reviewer B): This book is boring, boring boring! I really wasn’t a fan. Paloma is not the least bit likable, and though I initially thought that about Renee she did grow on me over the course of the novel. There was a lot of boring, sleep-inducing philosophy in the book which made me lose interest quickly. Paloma was ridiculously snobby and hard to connect with as a character. The book got slightly better in the second half, but overall, philosophy is not my thing, the characters were mostly unlikable and “pretty” prose doesn’t impress me (in fact, it usually bores me, and did again this time).

As I look at my review again a couple of years later, I can’t even remember what grew on me about Renee. I just remember all the philosophy that bored me to tears.

So, if you have trouble with unlikeable characters, aren’t interested if there isn’t much of a plot, and aren’t interested in philosophy, you’ll hate this too. It sure wasn’t for me!”

What do you think? Vote in our poll and tell is if you love it or hate it. If you haven’t read it, you can vote on whether you want to or not. 

16 Comments Post a comment
  1. I’m adding this to my ‘Definitely Read’ 1001 Books sublist. Epistolary novel – ✔. Set in a Parisian apartment block – ✔. Mysterious Japanese person – ✔. Philosophy – ✔. The Loved It reviewer also did a good job of explaining what s/he liked about it.

    Liked by 1 person

    December 2, 2015
    • I am pretty sure you would love this book


      December 2, 2015
  2. Tracy S. #

    I read this not long after it was published in the US, and loved it. The philosophy was heavy handed, but I thought it added to its charm. I do think a person should have a little more life experience to understand and appreciate it.

    Liked by 2 people

    December 2, 2015
  3. I had to put this as a “loved it”, even though love might not be the right word… I read it YEARS ago, and I have fond memories of it, but I don’t think I loved it. It was a decent read, but not in my favorites. I do love that Barbery uses a multi-generational cast of characters – that always makes a book more interesting and complex.

    Liked by 1 person

    December 2, 2015
  4. JoLene R #

    I listened to this book earlier this year. I really enjoyed it — although I probably won’t say it is a favorite. Here is the last part of my review……

    This book has been on my TBR for quite a while, so I’m happy that this month’s tag [PBT] pushed me to “read” it —- I actually listened to it. The reviews of this book are very mixed — some loved it while others thought it was a long-winding bag of pretentiousness. I can definitely see how this book would not appeal to everyone. I’m not sure if I would have liked it as much if I read it because I probably would have gotten bogged down by some of the philosophical parts (although in listening, I may not have understood all the nuances either). What I did enjoy about the novel was the observations and wittiness of the two main characters —- both were in situations where they weren’t really “seen” by those around them. It was laugh out loud funny in parts and very touching in other parts as each discovered how it felt to reveal their true selves to one another and to Mr Ozu. Philosophical rantings aside, to me, this is the heart and beauty (another theme) of this touching story — we all matter!

    Liked by 1 person

    December 2, 2015
  5. sylviemarieheroux #

    Hi, I loved this one, much better than her first novel “Une gourmandise”. I have her new one “La vie des elfes” in my TBR pile. The English translation is set to come out in March 2016 from what I have seen on the web. Because I quite liked “L’élégance du hérisson”, this author has made it to my “must read” list.

    Liked by 1 person

    December 2, 2015
  6. This one has been on my TBR foreeeevvvver. Oddly, it is the hate it review that makes me want to get to it. I love philosophy lol!

    Liked by 1 person

    December 3, 2015
  7. Diane Zwang #

    I am in the I Love It camp.

    Liked by 2 people

    December 7, 2015
  8. Sileas #

    I loved it. I read in the comments that the philosophy in the book is heavy handed, but the French teach philosophy in high school. They really do go on about things in a markedly different way. This was a book I couldn’t stop talking about when I read it.

    Liked by 2 people

    January 7, 2017
  9. Oracle of Selfie #

    According to Jen’s rating, I give this book three (3) stars. As the book passed its first ⅓, I would give it 2 stars, and the ending is just 1 star.


    December 4, 2019
  10. serotonin #

    I don’t know why many people hate this book well I understand we have different opinions but then I am so in love with this book because it just tells that all of us can find something that can literally change us and also I love the fact that it tackles the struggles of an old woman and a young girl. It is like a diary which I loved that is why I felt a connection the way it has been written is awesome, I recommend this book because it is really a good book to read.

    Liked by 1 person

    July 12, 2021
  11. I’m definitely in the I Loved It camp!


    September 19, 2021
  12. Ann of Regrets #

    I disliked it. The parallels between the two female narrators were heavy-handed (i.e., jasmine tea drinking loners) . The philosophy seemed an excuse for general crankiness. The Japanese gentlemen was a sort of Rhett Butler type, knew the perfect dress to buy for Renee. The 12 year old listened to Glenn Miller and used Yiddish expressions– Go figure. The end is pure soap opera tear-jerking. Fake profundity about death.


    November 2, 2021

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