Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Elegant Hedgehogs

Every now and then I read a book that feels like stop and go traffic. Read two pages, stop. Try and absorb what I just read. Read four more pages, stop. And so forth. Sometimes those sort of books get abandoned to the dust bunnies, but not Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog.

While reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog there were times I sheepishly thought to myself, Honestly, I don't think I'm smart enough to get this book, and at other times I thought to myself, Maybe I'm not the problem. Seriously, how many ways can one author congratulate herself for being oh so very clever. These petty criticisms shed a poor light on Barbery's Hedgehog, but you see, they aren't true criticisms. They're more like the irritated grumblings that occur as you sweat yourself to death on the treadmill. Even as you complain you realize that the hardwork actually feels good. You can almost see your shape changing and your muscles growing stronger as you plod along.

a0075-000057, Doug Menuez /Iconica
photo credit
And by the end I had gained a reverence for The Elegance of the Hedgehog, and Barbery's version of what it means to live your life on the bottom rung of the social ladder, in a dysfunctional family, or to live in the world as a teenager today. Or more specifically, what it means to find joy and beauty in life even when you feel like you aren't a smooth fit with the rest of the pieces in the puzzle. When I finished the last page I held the book to my chest. It is one of those stories that left every muscle weary, but in the process invited thoughts and ideas that might otherwise have never have wandered my in direction.

Beginning on page two I started to write a list of all the different passages that elicited some sort of response from within me, making notes about things I'd be interested in writing about. But by page twenty-one I abandoned that idea. The list was getting too long. Instead I finished reading the book, gave it a few days to digest, and then settled on the two excerpts that I want to write about the most:

If you want to heal 
Heal others (290).

This advice is common enough among us, but receiving it in the context of Barbery's story made it ring real and true. She writes an incredibly tender scene where a twelve year old girl comforts her middle-aged friend, revealing a vulnerability in both of them, and a need for understanding that was greater than any social inhibition that otherwise might have impeded their friendship. After reading this chapter I put the book down and wondered how much healing in my own life has come in moments of reaching out to others, really reaching toward them.

There are socially acceptable codes of friendship, like Facebook posts and telephone calls. Brief exchanges as we pick up or drop of one another's children. Laughter shared over a bowl of frozen yogurt. But the type of friendship Barbery writes about is something more intense. It involves the leveling of walls, a stark honesty and admission of vulnerability. I think that women are often shy or nervous about this type of friendship because they fear being seen as weak or incompetent in their lives. I know I do.

And yet I can recall moments in the past decade that have changed my relationship with women I already liked and admired. These moments intensified the friendship, allowing me to really see the person across from me. I remember a long walk beneath the glare of the setting sun when a friend shared her heartache for her child. Is there any topic that makes women feel closer than this? So many of my raw friendship moments have involved tearful faces as women have confided, I'm not perfect. This isn't what I'd hoped. But there have been other times when the conversation has had nothing to do with the children, and everything to do with the certainty that sometimes we step wrong, act wrong, or say everything wrong. Whatever it is, it's rarely perfect.

Funny enough, the thing that changes when I have the privilege of sharing unguarded exchanges with other women is ME. Even if she is the one crying and admitting frailty, I leave feeling better understood. I'm not perfect. When it comes to my children, it isn't always what I'd hoped for. I step wrong, act wrong, and say everything wrong. And whatever my life is, it's rarely perfect. Can she see how sharing this part of herself heals me? I'm not sure what happened on that walk, or as we sat in my car talking until one in the morning. I was only trying to listen, and be a good friend. Yet there it is: if you want to heal, heal others.

And the second quotation: 

I have finally concluded,
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 (325).

Whatever our tendency to line up our grievances and heartache in a straight line that reaches as far as the horizon, the truth is that the line will eventually, inevitably be broken up by something good. Barbery's main characters are both prone to withdraw and avoid the world, hiding within themselves as if that is going to offer some peace and protection. Yet both characters are gradually drawn out of their shells through beauty. There is suffering and ugliness everywhere, but there is also music, art, food, literature, and above all relationships. The suspended comfort of feeling understood. I think that Barbery's point isn't that we should embrace the good, it's that no matter who we are or what our circumstance, we cannot escape it. There is an elegance to even the most unseemly of hedgehogs.


  1. Beautiful review. That last quote was on my list too. I would love to know what you made of this one -
    "We don't recognize each other because other people have become our permanent mirrors."

  2. Yes! It was on my long list of quotes to write about. I just had a conversation with a friend about cultures that thrive on looking and acting the same, versus cultures that thrive on being distinctive. I think the mirror concept is fascinating!


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