The Oldest College Weekly in America. Founded 1868.

The Colgate Maroon-News

The Oldest College Weekly in America. Founded 1868.

The Colgate Maroon-News

The Oldest College Weekly in America. Founded 1868.

The Colgate Maroon-News

‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’: What I Learned From Judging a Book Too Early

Graphic: Valeria Reyes

During my senior year of high school, I decided to take a contemporary literature class. The course was pretty straightforward — all we had to do was read a certain amount of books and complete a project for each of them before the end of the term. The only issue for me was deciding which books to read. I had always been an avid reader, but only after I found a novel that piqued my interest. I continually brought this dilemma upon myself because, like many of us, I couldn’t help but judge a book by its cover and its title.

While finishing my first book assignment for the class, my teacher brought up several novels she encouraged us to read, one of them being “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” by Muriel Barbery. The first couple of times she mentioned it, I ignored her and was not interested in reading what I presumed to be an outdated, overly ornate, abstract novel. That was, until one day, while encouraging us to pick it up for our next project, she gave a brief synopsis of the book. My teacher described the novel as following an unexpected friendship between a middle-aged concierge and a twelve-year-old girl grappling with her mental health. Completely surprised by what the novel seemed to entail, I decided to give it a try.

Muriel Barbery’s work stood out to me within the first few pages because of her engaging and apothegmatic writing style. Barbery is not only a novelist but also a philosophy teacher. Her background in philosophy shows through the novel’s complex discussions of hypocrisy, class and the meaning of life.

The novel switches between the perspectives of Renée Michela, a 54-year-old widowed concierge at a luxury apartment building in Paris, France, and 12-year-old Paloma Josse, whose family lives in one of the apartments. The two lead separate lives for the majority of the story, but as the story progresses, their similarities quickly become apparent to the reader.

Renée is quiet and keeps to herself to avoid her tenants’ questions. Despite this, it is clear she is very intelligent, often listening to opera or reading works by Leo Tolstoy and Edmund Husserl. Nevertheless, she chooses to keep this secret from her tenants out of fear of their condemnation. In Renée’s eyes, the job of a concierge shouldn’t draw attention, and she worries revealing her true self would do just that.

Similarly, Paloma is an unmistakably brilliant kid who chooses to hide her intelligence from her family and classmates to avoid exclusion at school. The reader gathers Paloma’s perspective through her journals, in which she writes her observations of those around her — typically quite pessimistically. She regularly describes her parents and sister as snobs and becomes dismayed with the plethora of privileged people in her life. This leads her to decide she will commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday — she plans to accomplish this by stealing her mother’s pills and burning the apartment building down. 

Although Paloma and Renée frequently cross paths, they rarely engage with each other. That is, however, until a Japanese man named Kakuro Ozu moves into an apartment in the building. Since both women shared a fascination with Japanese culture, they independently befriended him.

As Paloma and Kakuro grow closer, Paloma’s interest in Renée evolves. The two become skeptical of Renée’s masked intelligence and begin to question her. This ultimately leads to Kakuro and Renée growing closer on both an intellectual and romantic level. Paloma eventually starts to befriend Renée, who opens her eyes to her misconceptions of the world and societal generalizations of adults. Kakuro and Paloma’s new understanding of Renée leads them to describe her as a hedgehog. They justify this description by stating that Renée and hedgehogs are both deceptively apathetic and shy creatures, yet incredibly elegant.

While I won’t spoil the ending because I believe everyone should give this book a try, it was truly unexpected. Even though I may have thought I had Barbery “figured out” and could see the ending coming, I was still pleasantly surprised by the novel’s conclusion. 

Despite learning a lot from the novel’s occasional deep philosophical discussions, my most important takeaway came from the cover itself. I initially scoffed at the book because not only did its cover fail to excite me, but the title made it sound like a bore. In the end, I’m glad I picked it up because my first impressions were far from correct. The novel is not only exciting, doing an excellent job of drawing the reader in, but it is also incredibly meaningful due to Barbery’s discussions on life and beauty. So, while it may be easy to push a book aside because of either its cover or title, I believe some of the most easily overlooked books are the ones that hold the potential to be the most impactful.

Rating: 5/5

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