November Meetup: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

Litwits Star Rating:  3.2 Stars!

Yesterday, nine Litwits met at my house to discuss Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog.  As you can see above with the 3.2 star rating, opinions were a mixed bag.  Some gave a resounding 5 stars while others opted for a less-impressed 2 star rating.  Most everyone agreed that the last third of the novel was the best part – easier to read, more actual plot movement and action.  Of course, the very ending was shocking and not necessarily in a pleasing way, but I won’t spoil the fun for those who haven’t read!

Hedgehog, we all agreed, can be a challenging read due to the philosophical digressions Barbery is so fond of imposing upon her readers.  She’s an author who definitely follows the old advice of writing what one knows – she herself being a philosophy professor who currently lives in Japan.  We also wondered if the translation perhaps hurt the enjoyability for readers who can’t read the novel in its original French.  Then, of course, there’s always the disconnect between cultures and societies – without having a thorough understanding of French class systems, familial structures, and education, the reader is left to impose their own experiences upon the story and characters.  How much does this affect our reading experience?

We discussed in depth the main characters of Paloma, our precocious 12-year-old, and Renee, our cranky concierge.  Some found Paloma amusing in her pompous rants, others felt she lacked a certain vulnerability that belongs to all children, no matter how smart.  We wondered if Renee was bringing her misery onto herself as we rarely saw anyone being openly cruel to her.  We laughed over Renee’s comical discussion of comma mis-usage and her episode with the singing toilet.  Many members bemoaned the dual narrative – citing a feeling of choppiness that kept the story from flowing properly, hating the switch in font.  Others believed the short 2-3 page chapters added to the readability – by the time you were sick of one character’s philosophical ranting it was already over.

If there’s one plus to Barbery’s writing that everyone seemed to agree on, it’s her ability to write some stunningly beautiful prose.  Some readers could even quote a few of her sentences word-for-word which is always a great compliment to any writer.  Of course, don’t take on this volume without a dictionary handy as you will definitely run across words and terms you’ve never heard before – a great vocabulary lesson with every chapter!

The Elegance of the Hedgehog has garnered great critical praise by the elite readers of the world – so I definitely think it’s worth checking out, even if only to convince yourself further than professional critics really don’t know what they’re talking about!  After reading reactions on Amazon, Goodreads, and amongst our own Litwits, I’m convinced this is a novel you will either loathe or love, but no matter what side of the fence you land on, I promise you will walk away appreciating at least one aspect of Barbery’s writing.

Special thanks to everyone who came yesterday!  I enjoyed meeting new members and catching up with regulars!  Next month we’ll be reading A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens – a timeless Christmas classic – short, but sweet!  Fellow organizer, Katherine, has been gracious enough to host the meetup at her home in Grant Park so I hope to see y’all there!

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