The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

Fiction pick by Jean-Louis

hedgehog(Europa Editions, 2008)

Our library’s Reading Bingo card for this year encourages readers to broaden their usual selections and one of the squares is a challenge to read a book translated into English. I truly believe that every good book is a journey into a new world, but reading a book originally written in another language is an even deeper exploration of a different world.

In Muriel Barbery’s novel, the world we explore is that of an elegant French apartment block and our guide is Madame Michel, a widowed concierge who is studiously not what she seems to be on the outside. The novel is shot through with fine explorations of manner, grace, language, and social distinction. A second view into this world is young Paloma, a resident of the building who is also gathering and documenting moments of insight and beauty. Both Renee (Mme Michel) and Paloma, are keen to remain in the shadows, sure that they have their little world figured out but a new arrival in their building will open up their cloistered lives and force them to re-imagine what life can be.

The novel alternates between the views of the two women and elegantly and comically reveals some of the architecture of French society. The subtleties of grammar can reveal the rigidity of  class and status while also showing the heart breaking barriers that can keep people apart. Decorum, restraint,  manners, generosity, and grace are all explored in this very charming novel. Take a trip into the heart of cultured France–read this novel.

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