Book Review: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

Did you know that French fiction is almost like its own genre of books? I mean, now that I write that sentence, it doesn’t feel all that strange of a thing, but before I read The Elegance of the Hedgehog, I didn’t realize that the French have such a foreign way of writing fiction to what I’ve become accustomed to. It’s not like this is the first translated book I’ve ever read. I’ve read plenty of German translations, a couple of Japanese, and even a North Korean, but for whatever reason, The Elegance of the Hedgehog is one of the most foreign feeling books I’ve ever read.

It’s not like it’s technically all that different from a standard fiction narrative format. There are well-developed characters, they do things, there’s an issue to overcome, and things generally get resolved. It’s just that it’s so doggone slow and plodding. And the only reason that I’ve come to determine that the Frenchness of this book is a major contributing factor is because of doing a little research to determine why this book received so many accolades, even though not much happens throughout a majority of its pages.

That’s not to say this book has no redeeming qualities. While it is incredibly slow and throughout most of the text you’ll wonder if there’s a point, this book dives deeply into a number of philosophical concepts, as well as just the overall nature of existence. We get to see a main character struggle with classism in a way where we learn through her internal monologue that she is brilliant while she hides it from nearly every single person she interacts with. We get to read the diaries of a young girl who is dealing with her own similar issues. In fact, the structure of this book is downright amazing. The parallelism between the old concierge and the young girl is so well done that I didn’t even realize they were two different characters for far longer than I care to admit.

And the prose is so poetic. We watch an awkward love story play out between the concierge and one of the people who have recently moved into the building she works for, and see these two struggle with the concept of bridging their class divide while trying not to resist their obvious chemistry.

And then we get the little suicidal girl slowly come to terms with the fact that the world is actually not nearly as hopeless as she had originally believed.

There’s a ton of great stuff in this book.

It’s just really slow.

And I haven’t yet decided whether or not that’s a bad thing yet.

But the translation is remarkably done. I obviously can’t speak to how faithful the translation is, but the verbiage utilized in the translation shows the workmanship of a true master of the English language, who, presumably, is just as masterful in French. And it might be in this alone that makes this book worth a read.

It’s not a page turner, by any means, but it’ll certainly make you think, and will paint the most beautiful images in your mind as you work through it.


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