So here it is, the book that enticed me to clean the house from top to bottom with both girls in tow so that I could indulge in some reading time when Granny had Miss Two. Knowing how much trouble I usually have in getting the housework done with the help of a two year old, and how I usually spend my toddler-free time cooking or gardening (after the house is cleaned of course) goes some way to describing just how much I enjoyed this book. It is beautiful and so very French in the best possible way. I was going to say, if you only read one book this year, make it this one. But then I did a little research and read some other reviews and there are plenty of people who would strongly disagree with my gushing admiration of Muriel Barbery’s masterpiece. It seems those in the opposing camp (I love how books can so ardently divide people, makes for such wonderful conversation) found it banal, self-indulgent and unrealistic. In fact one reviewer called it “bloggishly self-indulgent”, perhaps that’s why I enjoyed it so much!
The story is set in 7, Rue de Grenelle, a luxury apartment building housing some of Paris’s wealthiest and most privileged citizens and follows the lives of two of its inhabitants. First is Renee Michel, a lowly concierge living a clandestine existence in which she feigns ignorance and stupidity in public while actually being highly intelligent and a self-taught expert on literature, art and philosophy. She devours the written word in all it’s forms. At 54 years old Renee, a widower for many years, shares her life with few, a cat name Leo (as in Tolstoy) and Manuela, a Portuguese immigrant employed by several of the residents to clean their large, over-stuffed apartments.
The second crucial character is Paloma Josse, a twelve year old girl, making plans to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday in a desperate attempt to avoid the vacuous bourgeois existence she feels destined to live. In the remaining year of her life she determines to keep two journals, one of Profound Thought and one of The Movement of the World, both last ditch efforts to find something meaningful in the world that might be worth living for.
The lives of both characters are ultimately transformed by one event. A resident dies at 7, Rue de Grenelle and the apartment is sold to someone outside the family, something that hadn’t happened in more than two decades. The new resident is Kakuro Ozu, a wealthy Japanese businessman. He too is a lover of art and literature and surprises Renee by quoting a line from Anna Karenina – a book she knows intimately and adores. This is enough for her to forget her front and respond in a way that belies her mask of ignorance. Intrigued, Kakuro sets about getting to know the real Renee. Kakuro also makes an instant connection with Paloma when they find themselves in the lift together one morning. After a brief conversation he explains his theory about their mysterious concierge and finds Paloma thinks similarly. The two of them collude to break down the wall Renee has so carefully built around herself.
Once Renee realises that there is no fooling either Kakuro or Paloma she opens herself up to the most fulfilling of relationships with the two of them. She finds in Kakuro someone whose perspective on life is completely congruent with her own that he can almost read her thoughts. With Paloma she discovers a soul mate, as she said, the child she would have had, had she been fortunate enough to have any. Paloma is so very like Renee, intelligent, different and misunderstood. The two of them fit together in a way neither had found with anyone else.
The story itself is charming, though perhaps its critics are right in declaring it implausible. In my opinion this matters little – I don’t read fiction to find reality, but rather fantasy. What I loved about this book was its focus on the small, sometimes forgotten, part of life; the perfect movement of an athlete on TV, enjoying a rare morning cup of tea with a friend and the beauty of the camelias in the courtyard among others. It reminds me of French films in the way it savours the little details. The story unfolds slowly, languidly, taking the time to explore the characters, their inner most thoughts and the situation they find themselves in. Though the ending is not what I was hoping for (I’m a bit of a hopeless romantic at times) even I can concede that it is probably the perfect ending and again so very French.
While this magnificent novel wasn’t the kind of read that instantly grips you, it worked it’s way into my heart and mind quite unexpectedly. I found myself constantly drawn to it, I read it while feeding Baby Good breakfast and while Miss Two played with her teddies in the afternoon. I even read it between reading story books to the girls, we’d read one of theirs and then while Miss Two picked the next book, I’d read a couple of pages of this. But I almost couldn’t bare to finish it, I sat on those last twenty pages for several days, before taking myself to my room to languish in them this afternoon.
And that’s it, the first book of the year and the first of my goal of fifteen books for 2012. Next on the list is the highly recommended (by Liz) but incredibly daunting A Suitable Boy. I have a beach holiday coming up so with a break from normal life I thought I might just be able to tackle this monster.