Contains SPOILERS*** I just finished reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog by French author Muriel Barbery. I immediately recorded my rating on Goodreads, not hesitating to select the five stars that I bestow on those books that move me on several levels. I laughed, I (nearly) cried, I nodded in agreement to the character’s reflections on certain aspects in life, and wrote down those quotes that expressed certain musings in a way that struck a resonant chord inside me. This is one of those books that I know if I read again in five years time, the experiences and knowledge that comes with aging and maturing will allow me to be able to understand and glean even more gems from its pages. I truly felt that this book was worthy of my rating.
But then I began to read the other reviews for it on Goodreads. The first four reviewers gave it a mere single star. Doubt welled up into my heart…am I a fool for seeing such value in what I just read? Almost each and every one of those reviewers complained of the pretentiousness of the novel, and I grew indignant. To me it felt like they were the pot calling the kettle black, but more than anything I felt that those other readers had missed several important elements from the novel.
For one, from my point of view the so-called “pretentiousness” is the author’s cheeky intention. It’s almost as if Barbery takes pleasure out of ruffling the feathers of those who would scoff at her novel, and those One-Star-Raters are simply falling victim to her bait. In other words, the ones proclaiming “Damn this pretentious drivel!” like it’s witchcraft are in fact the pretentious ones themselves. And maybe I’M the pretentious one for saying so, but ultimately I don’t care if that’s the case. I feel richer for having read this novel, and that is something I cannot regret.
Some reviewers pegged their single-star score to the utter banality and one-dimensionality of the story. To this, I can simply say “To each his own.” Some people like gold, some like silver, and others simply appreciate the practicality of sheet metal. No one has the right to look down on the other for their preferences. As for me, I sucked up this book like a glass of icy lemonade on a humid summer day.
To the reviewer who proclaimed disgustedly that there aren’t even any hedgehogs in this book, I refer back to the metaphor that described one of the protagonists, Renée, the country bumpkin turned intellectual concierge who is afraid of crossing class divisions by revealing her intelligence, as a hedgehog- a fierce fortress of prickly quills on the outside, but carries a simple refined elegance inside. Oh, how can a hedgehog be elegant, you say? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but either way, Barbery is NOT trying to say that intelligence is what make these characters beautiful, for as the other protagonist, Paloma, says, “What is the purpose of intelligence if it is not to serve others.” If the point of this novel was truly about the intelligence of the characters as the end-all be-all to their lives, then I believe that Renée’s dying thoughts would have been on Tolstoy, or phenomenology, or on something far more “pretentious” than mourning over how she will miss the dear friends that have made such a difference in her life.
As for Paloma, the 12 year-old who is seeking out the reasons to “not” set fire to her apartment and commit suicide when she turns 13, I see a reason to hope that she in fact won’t be “exactly the same as every other precocious 12 year-old brat in the bourgeoisie world and she’ll get over it as soon as she discovers penis and marijuana.” (as described by one certain One-Star-Reviewer). This same reviewer went so far to say that he would prefer it if Renée were an “ignorant working-class stiff”, since he has no interest in the “intelligentsia pretensions in a do-nothing concierge.” However, the “ridiculous and unbelievable artifice that” (from the same One-Star-Reviever) Renée attempts to keep up a charade of her identity is not simply about class lines, but an ingrained fear that to overstep her boundaries would mean certain and literal death, not just the judgment passed onto her by way of upturned noses by the upper class.
I think the message of this novel is quite simple really. Strip away the philosophical “drivel” and you have a story of two women who recognize the eternal beauty in everyday nothings, and the joy and warmth that comes from nurturing relationships with others that makes life worth living. These characters are far from one-dimensional, and I believe that the fact that the One-Star-Raters are able to list off so many “faults” in the characters is evidence of that. Sigh. We might all be hypocrites in one way or another, but I dearly hope that I turn out to not be the type to think that my own intelligence is an end in itself. I mustn’t forget to use my heart as well.
Ultimately, there’s no right or wrong way to view something, and I admire Renée and Paloma for the way they seek to view the world with different lenses. So, I decided to embrace what I gained from this novel, not letting the other reviewers frighten me out of appreciating something that I find valuable. But I have to wonder how a piece of true crap literature would rate on the scale of one of those One-Star-Reviewers…or I suppose they wouldn’t even lower themselves enough to even rest eyes on something so unworthy of their time.
And so, I’ll follow Paloma’s advice to “surpass ourselves every day, make every day undying. Climb our own personal Everest and do it in such a way that every step is a little bit of eternity.”