A few weeks ago was my latest book club meeting for the Serious Book Club (which is my IRL book club, but I take the conversation from our book club discussion and write about here, that way you can “join” too if you want to read along and discuss!). We read The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery.
Mixed reviews from the book club ladies on this book. We were almost split in half. Some loved it and thought it was beautiful, others weren’t fans. I was somewhere in the middle.
It was a lot of big words, big thoughts, and sentences you had to read a few times before you could fully comprehend the meaning. People enjoy reading for different reasons. Some want their mind to be challenged and stretched, some prefer an escape or to be easily entertained.
The book covers the meaning of life, art, beauty, class, and death. It was a best seller in France, has won awards, and was praised by French media.
There is definitely a surprise ending and some beautiful passages in the book, but while reading it, I found myself having to reread a lot of parts to make sure I fully soaked up what the characters were trying to say. Also, since I’m usually reading multiple books at a time, I found myself not wanting to reach for this one.
I like deep, meaningful, challenging books, and I appreciate them more usually after I discuss them with other people and go back and reread the parts I highlighted. It definitely grew on me after I read it. Some of the passages really are beautiful, but for me, it wasn’t quite the sensation that it was to the French.
A few passages that stood out to me (page numbers are from the paperback version):
Page 74 (Renée)
Lucien’s illness did not strike anyone as being worthy of interest. To rich people it must seem that the ordinary little people — perhaps because of their lives are more rarified, deprived of the oxygen of money and savoir-faire — experience human emotions with less intensity and greater indifference. Since we are concierges, it was a given that death, for us, must be a matter of course, whereas for our privileged neighbors it carried all the weight of injustice and drama. … The fact that we might be going through hell like any other human being, or that our hearts might be filling with rage as Lucien’s suffering ravaged our lives, or that we might be slowly going to pieces inside, in the torment of fear and horror that death inspires in everyone, did not cross the mind of anyone on these premises.
Page 75 (Renée, after Renee’s husband died)
There were no poignant regrets, because he had found peace this way, he had placed his trust in what we had said to each other without any need for words.
Page 91 (Renée)
When tea becomes ritual, it takes its place at the heart of our ability to see greatness in small things. Where is beauty to be found? In great things like that, like everything else, are doomed to die, or in small things that aspire to nothing, yet know how to set a jewel of infinity in a single moment?
Also on this page she writes about the tea ritual. It’s a beautiful paragraph.
Page 92 (Paloma, talking about her dad’s morning ritual of getting up at 6 am and reading the paper while drinking his coffee)
In this way Papa constructs himself, every day. I say “constructs himself” because I think that each time it’s a new construction, as if everything has been reduced to ashes during the night, and he has to start from scratch. In our world, that’s the way you live your grown-up life: you must constantly rebuild your identity as an adult, the way it’s been put together it is wobbly, ephemeral, and fragile, it cloaks despair and, when you’re alone in front of the mirror, it tells you the lies you need to believe. For Papa, the newspaper and the coffee are magic wands that transform him into an important man.
Page 128 (Paloma)
Just by observing the adults around me I understood very early on that life goes by in no time at all, yet they’re always in such a hurry, so stressed out by deadlines, so eager for now that they needn’t think about tomorrow…But if you dread tomorrow, it’s because you don’t know how to build the present, and when you don’t know how to build the present, you tell yourself you can deal with it tomorrow, and it’s a lost cause anyway because tomorrow always ends up becoming today, don’t you see?
We have to live with the certainty that we’ll get old and that it won’t look nice or be good or feel happy. And tell ourselves that it’s now that matters: to build something, now, at any price, using all our strength.
Page 325 (Paloma)
…maybe that’s what life is about: there’s a lot of despair, but also the odd moment of beauty, where time is no longer the same. It’s as if those strains of music created a sort of interlude in time, something suspended, an elsewhere that had to come to us, and always within never.
…from now on, for you, I’ll be searching for those moments of always within never.
Beauty in this world.
If you’ve read The Elegance of the Hedgehog, please tell me what you think in the comments! Also, I’d love to know what some of your favorite books are! Any you think would be good for a book club discussion?
The next book club book is The Vegetarian by Han Kang — start reading now so you’ll be ready for the next book club!
Editor’s note: When I write about books, I’m simply writing my opinion but with immense respect for the authors. Writing any sort of book is hard! I respect all authors and books even if I didn’t like them or didn’t understand them just on the simple fact that they were written by someone. Someone passionate enough to actually write and finish writing a book, whether I think it’s good or bad, I still respect the work it takes to write a book. Personally I think it would be so hard to write a book, especially fiction! So everything I say, I say constructively and as an opinion, and with respect.
I dubbed this book club the Serious Book Club because we seriously read the books and seriously discuss them, not because we only read serious books!