Book #10 (January) – The Elegance of the Hedgehog


** I’ve started a new Facebook-based book club! Learn more HERE.**

This month’s book is: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery


Summary (by BN.com):

Renée Michel is the 54-year-old concierge of a luxury Paris apartment building. Her exterior (“short, ugly, and plump”) and demeanor (“poor, discreet, and insignificant”) belie her keen, questing mind and profound erudition. Paloma Josse is a 12-year-old genius who behaves as everyone expects her to behave: a mediocre pre-teen high on adolescent subculture, a good but not outstanding student, an obedient if obstinate daughter. She plans to kill herself on the sixteenth of June, her thirteenth birthday.

Both Renée and Paloma hide their true talents and finest qualities from the bourgeois families around them, until a wealthy Japanese gentleman named Ozu moves into building. Only he sees through them, perceiving the secret that haunts Renée, winning Paloma’s trust, and helping the two discover their kindred souls.





Discussion Questions


Before you Read:

1. What are your expectations for this book?

2. Tell us what you know about hedgehogs. How might a hedgehog be elegant?


Marx:

3. Explain the meaning of the quote, “Whoever sows desire harvests oppression.”

4. What are your initial thoughts on Renee? Do you think Renee fits the stereotype of the typical French concierge?

5. What are your initial thoughts on Paloma? How do Paloma and Renee differ?

6. Do you find Paloma’s reasons for wanting to commit suicide justifiable?


Camellias:

7. How do feel about Renee’s attitude toward others? (Think about her relationship with Manuela, and her encounter with Pierre Arthens.)

8. Would you say Renee and Paloma are both hedgehogs? What might they each be hiding from or frightened about behind their protective cover?

9. Do you understand Paloma’s view of movement? Why does she use movement as a motivation for living?

10. Why does Renee find the need to hide her love of reading?

11. Do you agree that cats are a modern totem? Do you consider them mere decorations? If not, what would you say in regards to Paloma’s thoughts on cats?

12. Are you an autodidact? Does being an autodidact help or hinder people in life? Why do you think this way?

13. Can you explain the differences between Kantian idealism and the idealism of Edmund Husserl? Which do you agree with more, if either?





 On Grammar: 

14. Why does Renee shudder at the quote from Anna Karenina? How did Mr. Ozu know that she would understand the reference?

15. Let’s restate a question from the book: Do you know what an involuntary act signifies? Give your own explanation.

16. Why does Mr. Ozu confide his suspicions about Renee with Paloma?

17. In Paloma’s Profound Thought No. 9, she compares Renee to an elegant hedgehog. Do you agree with this?

18. Do you agree with Paloma’s view points on grammar or do you agree with Madame Fine that the point of grammar is to “make us speak and write well?”

19. Do you think non-sliding doors are an intrusion?

20. Why does the fact that Mr. Ozu has only one of every thing in his apartment make a “pleasant impression” on Renee? Do you buy things in pairs of 2 or as singles, and does this matter?


Summer Rain: 

21. Do you think Renee’s response to Mr. Ozu’s gift, “Thank you, you shouldn’t have,” was appropriate? If not, what should she have said instead?

22. Would you be as friendly to the concierge as Mr. Ozu is, or would you ignore her like the rest of the people living in the building do?

23. Do you agree that the true movement of the world might be a voice raised in song? Why or why not?

24. What similarities do you notice between Renee’s best friend and Paloma’s best friend?

25.  How is Summer rain portrayed in this section?

26.  Do you agree with Paloma that we are just bees “destined to accomplish our task and then die?”


Paloma:

27. What is it about Renee’s loge that makes it the ideal hiding place?

28. Why does Renee not accept Mr. Ozu’s  invitation to dinner? Do you find Renee’s reasons for turning down his invitation justifiable?

29. While dining with Mr. Ozu, what causes Renee to weep and is this a good or bad thing for her?

30. What does the symbol of a camellia signify in this story? Is the significance different for other characters?

31. Does Renee’s death come as a shock? Why do you think she dies in this story and not Paloma?

32. Why do you think the title of this section is labeled “Paloma” when the main event is Renee’s death?

33. Is the fact that Renee was “prepared to love” at the time of her death important to her death or to her life, why or why not?

34. Consider the last thoughts and images Renee shares with us. Is the order of the people she thinks about significant? Do you feel she thought about the right people in the order they were presented?

35. What changes in Paloma? Does she have a good enough reason to live now?




 Other Questions:

36. Tell us what happens to the characters in the story after the shock of Renee’s death wears off. What happens to Paloma? Mr. Ozu? Manuela?

37. What beauty do you find in the world?

38. Did you watch the movie that goes along with this book? If so, what similarities or differences did you notice? Which did you like better?

39. Would you recommend this book to a friend? Why or why not?



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8 responses to “Book #10 (January) – The Elegance of the Hedgehog

  1. Hi fellow members and happy new year of reading! 🙂 Here are my first answers:

    1. What are your expectations for this book? I hope it is a hearty and interesting story and maybe it teaches me to notice little beautiful and happy details in life more and give some peace of mind.

    2. Tell us what you know about hedgehogs. How might a hedgehog be elegant? Hehe, good question! I’ve seen several hedgehogs in my grannys garden and I think they are cute beautiful, but shy animals. They roll themselves up quickly when they sense danger and they make popping sound. Many people put a plate with milk out for hedgehogs, but actually it is not good for their stomach. The best food we can give a hedgehog is raw fish. Otherwise they are insectivorous. I know that hedgehogs have quite a lot of parasites, there is an expression hedgehog hour and it means the amount of parasites an hedgehog gathers within an hours. A hedgehog has 16 000 needles. I think an hedgehog can be elegant by wearing the needles proudly. 😛 And they have beautiful eyes, too. 😉

    Marx:
    3. Explain the meaning of the quote, “Whoever sows desire harvests oppression.” I haven’t read works of Feuerbach, so I can’t exactly tell what he meant, but I think that when someone does something with too much desire and passion (s)he wants to get the maximum and is disappointed by the result if it is not so good as desired. And this causes oppression.

  2. 4. What are your initial thoughts on Renee? Do you think Renee fits the stereotype of the typical French concierge? Renee seems to be quite antisocial but fond of culture. I think that Renee might fit this streotype by her visible features (apperance, having a lazy cat) and she tries hard to fit the stereotype apparently to avoid suspicion of the other people in her house, but her personality is and interests are totally different as she enjoys good books and films and classical music.

    5. What are your initial thoughts on Paloma? How do Paloma and Renee differ? Paloma is very precocious and she is fond of Japanese culture. I think that she might be attracted by the simpleness and beauty of it and it is kind of protest against the rich lazy Western culture she sees around her. She is concerned with global problems and she wants others to be concerned with them as well. She might be a lot smarter than it’s typical to her age, but in some things she is so stupid. How can she believe that losing a flat and daughter makes her parents think of poverty and famine in Africa? This is really childish! The main difference between Renee and Paloma is that Renee knows how to enjoy life and finds life worth living, but Paloma doesn’t. It also seems to me that Paloma is more arrogant although she maybe doesn’t mean to.

    6. Do you find Paloma’s reasons for wanting to commit suicide justifiable? No! Life might be absurd, but there’s still beauty in it. I think Paloma should find a true friend to see it. She says that she is too young for a real love or friendship, but friendships often start at childhood and grow bigger and stronger slowly.

    Camellias:
    7. How do feel about Renee’s attitude toward others? (Think about her relationship with Manuela, and her encounter with Pierre Arthens.) I think on one hand Renee wants to be left alone to devote to her books and films. She wouldn’t believe other people from this house would ever understand her and therefore she acts dumb to them and doesn’t interact more than needed. But under the mask of being better off alone, she actually seems to be kind of lonely. She needs her only friend Manuela and loves the way Manuela pays attention to her, brings her cakes and makes her „feel like a queen“. So Renee’s relationship with Manuela might be a bit selfish, but I’m sure she actually treasures this friendship and cares for Manuela as much as Manuela does for her, although Renee might not show it so clearly. Renee is also afraid of being forgotten when Manuela leaves her.

    8. Would you say Renee and Paloma are both hedgehogs? What might they each be hiding from or frightened about behind their protective cover? Both Paloma and Renee are actually more intelligent than others think and they try to act not so smart as they believe others don’t understand them anyway and therefore it’s better to keep a low profile.

    9. Do you understand Paloma’s view of movement? Why does she use movement as a motivation for living? It is a good point that mostly we move towards something and therefore we can’t live in the moment. Connection with our body and being aware of its movement helps us to sense the „here and now“ and gives us power. This is something I understand theoretically, but can’t follow practically very well yet… Paloma sees the beauty of „movement without moving“, staying yourself while moving and it captivates her, but it is not quite enough to be convincing.

    10. Why does Renee find the need to hide her love of reading? She wants to lead a peaceful life and doesn’t want to be disturbed by other people in the house. If others don’t know how intelligent she really is, they think of her as a typical dumb French concierge and don’t pay her much attention.

    11. Do you agree that cats are a modern totem? Do you consider them mere decorations? If not, what would you say in regards to Paloma’s thoughts on cats? Well, it depends. There are definitely some people who keep pets only to be decorations or accessiories (chihuahuas in or instead a handbag :P), but if the person is devoted on understanding the cat’s (or any other pet’s) feelings, they must admit that they have character. I have never had cats myself (although I have a rabbit now and I have kept also hamsters, rats and gerbiles who all had different personalities), but I recently met with two of my friends who both have two cats and we talked about them. One friend said that her cat can even „talk“ and I’ve also heard that. The cat makes silent neh-neh sounds which sound like a whisper and when my friend imitates those sounds the cat react with her own „sentences“. 🙂 The other friend said that his cat once clearly used to say the word „õue“ (Estonian for „out“) when asking out. Until… his friend came to visit him and told the cat: „So, be a good kitty now and say the word „õue“!“ The cat gave the visitor a despising go-to-hell-look and never said the word again. 😛

    12. Are you an autodidact? Does being an autodidact help or hinder people in life? Why do you think this way? I think that most people are autodidacts in a way as many things (for example relationships with others) just are not taught at school. Being an autodidact has both advantages and disadvantages. It is good because then you have to think on your own and this makes you creative. It is bad because then you have noone to ask if you are on the right track but yourself. This way you learn to trust yourself and this is a good thing again. 🙂 But when we talk about academic education and finding a job then autodidacts are mostly not trusted in today’s community. Diplomas and papers are needed everywhere to prove the qualification. According to her potential Renee might also have found a better job, but as her education is merely unofficial, she can’t prove it and she in her role as a concierge she even doesn’t want to.

    13. Can you explain the differences between Kantian idealism and the idealism of Edmund Husserl? Which do you agree with more, if either? Kant says that we can’t trust our senses and feel the true being of objects. Husserl goes even farther, saying that the true being of objects doesn’t even matter, the only thing we can explore are our own senses and ideas. I think that even if they might be right (actually we have no proof arter all), we can’t live this way if we don’t trust the picture our senses create us. We just have to believe the world exist, otherwise it would be rather pointless and sad.

  3. 1. None. I’m reading it, because it’s the book club book for the month and haven’t researched it before.
    2. I know that hedgehogs curl up into a prickly ball when they are afraid. They live kind of a secretive life, not running out in the open very much. I think they hibernate in the winter. A hedgehog could be elegant in the way it walks.

  4. 1. I don’t know what to expect, I guess I’ll let myself be surprised.
    2. Hedgehogs are my dog’s friends (he just loves them). I find them cute, but they have a lot of fleas. Actually, I think their movements are quite un-elegant, so that is probably the point of the title.
    3. This question takes me waaaay back to my philosophy course, and I was not good at it. The only thing I know is that Marx was a philosopher and that’s probably it. None of that stuff we learned did make sense to me just like this quote. I’d say that in a moment we create a desire we are somehow obliged to fulfill it and that leads into oppression (well, this definition sucks, I rather leave it).
    4. I think that Renee not fitting the stereotype is the point of her character, however she tries to fit it because it’s expected from her. I think she’s a very intelligent but bitter woman.
    5. She’s how old? Twelve? And already tries to kill herself. No matter her reasons (that make no sense and are really selfish), she feels to me really immature on emotional level. Her passages irritate me; I just can’t click with her character at all.
    6. Ooops, said that in the comment above, however one more time – no. There is only a few reasons with which I could justify a suicide, but not hers.
    7. I think Renee didn’t have it easy with other people, that is why she is careful to let anyone in. I think that she quite excepts Manuela as her friend.

  5. 1. I’m expecting it to be good.
    2. I know that hedgehogs are omnivores and night creatures and I think they look really elegant when they roll up into a ball when they’re frightened
    3. You might be oppressing someone by the desire you sow.
    4. My initial thoughts are that she seems to be very lonely, isolated and sad but cultured, I have no idea what a typical concierge is like so I can’t say.
    5. My initial thoughts on Paloma are she seems a bit advanced for her age which might contribute to her being sucidial, she also seems to think too much and act older than her age but I like that she likes all things Japanese, the difference between them is Paloma has a negative view on life while Renee has a positive view on life.
    6. No I don’t find any of her reasons justifiable.

  6. 14. Why does Renee shudder at the quote from Anna Karenina? How did Mr. Ozu know that she would understand the reference? Renee shudders because she understands that Mr. Ozu has seen behind her mask of a “typical concierge”. She is not used to such situation and she is afraid that it might affect her peaceful life in a negative way when other people learn to know her. Mr Ozu gets suspicious when Renee shudders on the wrong use of language and when she uses the first side of Tolstoi’s quote, he know that she would understand when he says the end of the sentence. Although I must admit that this requires huge attentiveness!

    15. Let’s restate a question from the book: Do you know what an involuntary act signifies? Give your own explanation. I’d like to believe that through involountary acts we are guided to do what’s right, whether by our own will which hasn’t reached to our mind yet, or maybe by some higher force. For example in crisis situations (where people have to give first aid or save somebody’s life) many people do what is needed without declaring themselves, what they are doing… In Renee’s case I tend to agree with her that maybe she really wanted to “get caught”. She has been practically alone for so long that she must have a strong need to show the world who she really is and find somebody who truly understands her, although she does everything to smother it.

    16. Why does Mr. Ozu confide his suspicions about Renee with Paloma? I think he wants to talk about it with someone and as he is a good reader of people he might understand that Paloma is not so narrow-minded as other people in the house and she might understand those suspicions.

    17. In Paloma’s Profound Thought No. 9, she compares Renee to an elegant hedgehog. Do you agree with this? Yes, I do. Renee is prickly outside but sensible inside.

    18. Do you agree with Paloma’s view points on grammar or do you agree with Madame Fine that the point of grammar is to “make us speak and write well?” I agree more with Paloma. As she says, the teacher’s definition is not completely wrong, but just too simple (not to say stupid). I agree that grammar can be very beautiful because I’m translating a book from English into Estonian and I understand which sentences sound beautiful and which not. It links with a thought that Renee states later, beauty is when something fits and every person has such sense of fitting, both for beauty and for grammar. Thinking further, I believe that one of the reasons grammar is beautiful is that it has certain rules how things are meant to be and we are looking for this kind of security.

    19. Do you think non-sliding doors are an intrusion? I have never given much thought to it. But there are always some clothes hanging and drying on my rooms door, so I can never properly close it… And actually this might be pretty annoying at times. I understand why Renee finds sliding doors better. But I am a bit afraid that what if they get stuck? 😛

    20. Why does the fact that Mr. Ozu has only one of every thing in his apartment make a “pleasant impression” on Renee? Do you buy things in pairs of 2 or as singles, and does this matter? I once had an art teacher who said that odd numbers always look better in a composition than even numbers (for example when painting stones, flowers or other objects). Nad this seems to work. Most numbers considered magical are also odd, like 3, 7 and 9. Well, actually the question was about smaller quantities, 1 vs 2. I think that 2 might compete with each other but 1 is can show all it’s power and beauty. But I do buy socks and shoes in pairs! 😛

    Summer Rain:

    21. Do you think Renee’s response to Mr. Ozu’s gift, “Thank you, you shouldn’t have,” was appropriate? If not, what should she have said instead? From the possible answers my absolute favourite was: “My cat can’t read.” But I see that would have been rude, so I think a simple and sincere “Thank you!” would be enough. Or maybe even “Thank you so much!”

    22. Would you be as friendly to the concierge as Mr. Ozu is, or would you ignore her like the rest of the people living in the building do? Hehe, I’m kind of antisocial. 😛 In my own house there is only one lady I chat with sometimes and I’ve even visited her, but she started talking to me first, not vice versa. So, it’s not about the position of people, it’s about my timidness in searching contacts. I would say hello of course (in a friendly way ;)), but I wouldn’t go farther unless the other people would start.

    23. Do you agree that the true movement of the world might be a voice raised in song? Why or why not? In Indian religion philosophy there is a similar statement, that all the world is created by the holy syllable OM. And I wanted to mention it already at the grammar question: language can be like a song, especially my own dear Estonian language in which many beautiful runic songs were created already thousands of years ago. Ancient Estonians definitely put all their life into songs, it was a way of living, a way of being. Today I’m rediscovering those old songs and I’m always captured by their beauty. Songs have some rules, just like grammar (and runic songs have a strict structure of eight-syllable verses) and if they are followed we get the idea that things are the way they’re meant to be again. A more light and amusing detail that came to my mind is a quote from an Estonian comedy where a man says to his beloved woman: “There have been many strophs in the song of my life, but the refrain will always be you!”

  7. 24. What similarities do you notice between Renee’s best friend and Paloma’s best friend? Well, Paloma doesn’t tell much about her best friend as a person (actually I even thought before she had no friends), but for both Renee and Paloma they have only one best female friend (until they meet each other) to discuss important topics with. And for both this friend seems to be someone they need to cope with life.

    25. How is Summer rain portrayed in this section? I think there is no actual rain, but it is a symbol of salvation, freedom and understanding that actually comes over Renee when she has met Mr. Ozu.

    26. Do you agree with Paloma that we are just bees “destined to accomplish our task and then die?” I partly agree at the point that we have a special task what we shoud do in life. But there might be several, not only one. And we are able to see beauty, which, I guess bees can’t (although I’m not so sure after reading “Secret Life of The Bees, ha-ha! :D).

    27. What is it about Renee’s loge that makes it the ideal hiding place? It is quiet an separated and Renee lets Paloma just be herself.

    28. Why does Renee not accept Mr. Ozu’s invitation to dinner? Do you find Renee’s reasons for turning down his invitation justifiable? Renee is afraid that she might share the destiny of her sister by getting too close with someone from the upper class. Rationally her reasons are not justifiable, but I understand that what happened to her sister must have been a great shock to Renee and because of that she just can’t think rationally about such things.

    29. While dining with Mr. Ozu, what causes Renee to weep and is this a good or bad thing for her? Renee understands that Paloma has told Mr. Ozu about her sister and although she first refers to it as “traiting” this actually brings enlightment to Renee. She sees that her destiny can be different than her sister’s and is deeply touched by this understanding. It is good to her because she can see possibilities of leading her life differently as before.

    30. What does the symbol of a camellia signify in this story? Is the significance different for other characters? It symbolizes be beauty and infinity. Renee is more aware of this meaning in her mind, Jean doesn’t define it for himself very clearly, but still feels it so strongly that the camellias were able to change all his life and save him.

    31. Does Renee’s death come as a shock? Why do you think she dies in this story and not Paloma? Of course it is a shock! She was such a nice lady and jut discovered her possibilities in life. But I guess the author needed a reason to show, what was really important to Renee and, through it, what is important in life in general. And this became most clear to Renee at the moment of her death. Paloma is too young to die and she is about to accomplish great things.

    32. Why do you think the title of this section is labeled “Paloma” when the main event is Renee’s death? The most visible main event is Renee’s death, but I guess the changes in Paloma’s view are at least of the same importance. This section shows Paloma growing up and letting go of her selfish and childish thoughts including suicide.

    33. Is the fact that Renee was “prepared to love” at the time of her death important to her death or to her life, why or why not? Yes, I guess it is very important to both. It allows Renee to look back to her life with love and to die in peace.

    34. Consider the last thoughts and images Renee shares with us. Is the order of the people she thinks about significant? Do you feel she thought about the right people in the order they were presented? She thinks about people who were most important to her and they all helped her to become a better person in a way. I wouldn’t talk about any kind of ranking here, I think it’s petty to rank loved ones. I can only say that the cat came first because she needed something cute and easy to start with and the vision of her father at the end is the symbol of becoming free.

    35. What changes in Paloma? Does she have a good enough reason to live now? Paloma sees that Renee was her soulmate. She helped her to see the possibilities in life and through it saw them herself as well. I think that most important things that Paloma learns are understanding the meaning of beauty, sufferings and helping others. She sees how keen on beauty Renee was and she also wants to look for beauty in this world. She saw that she suffered because she had not a chance to help others and later she understood that actually her sufferings were nothing before compared to Renee’s death. And she is also ready to love and help others.

  8. 7. How do feel about Renee’s attitude toward others? I think it varies depending on how she feels and the person she is interacting with, I think she dumbs herself down so she doesn’t fail anyones expectation of herself, and she is very wary of who she lets get close to her.
    8. Would you say Renee and Paloma are both hedgehogs? What might they each be hiding from or frightened about behind their protective cover? they are both hedgehogs and I think they are both afraid of letting people know the real themand the fear of being harshly judged for that.
    9. Do you understand Paloma’s view of movement? Why does she use movement as a motivation for living? honestly no, sorry, and all I can think is it’s just an excuse to keep living cause if she really wants to die she would have done it already.
    10. Why does Renee find the need to hide her love of reading? she thinks people wont see her as a typical french concierge if they see her reading and will take up more of her reading time talking to her about trivial stuff.
    11. Do you agree that cats are a modern totem? Do you consider them mere decorations? If not, what would you say in regards to Paloma’s thoughts on cats? no they have always been around and have always been worshipped, I have a cat and have never thought of her as a decoration I think of her as a companion and friend with claws and attitude. Paloma doesn’t really see the cat as a pet it seems more like a nuisence or decoration to her than anything else.
    12. Are you an autodidact? Does being an autodidact help or hinder people in life? Why do you think this way? yes I am and I think everyone is. It helps because it makes you think more, be more creative and independent but it hinders because nowadays everyone needs paperwork to prove that they know or have done said stuff
    13.Can you explain the differences between Kantian idealism and the idealism of Edmund Husserl? Which do you agree with more, if either?
    I agree with what naturegirl wrote because I need to read more on this as sadly it perplex me, sorry.

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