I had never heard of this book until a friend of mine had kindly sent it to me as a surprise Christmas present in early December. At the time I was knee deep in “The Road” waiting to dip my toes gently into the pool of Lahiri’s collection of short stories and so set it aside with the promise to both myself and my friend I would read Barbery’s second novel immediately afterward (library books always get priority on the timeline!). I did. And boy am I glad.
The book is divided into sections and within those sections there are titled chapters that fluctuate between the points of view of the protagonists. The concierge, Madame Michele, seems to be the main person upon whom the story pivots while the other story teller is an adolescent girl named Paloma.
Madame Renee Michele is a closet art fanatic. In fact, it isn’t just the pleasure she takes in the reading of literature she speaks of, but also in keeping all the residents of 7 rue de Grenelle unaware of her love of arts and philosophy. Initially it seems to be a game to our dear heroine but as the story progresses we find a deeper, more poignant reason for her reluctance at outing herself. In truth it is, aside from all the other intellectual meanderings of Barbery, the true axis of the story. Take this excerpt, in which our concierge has just used the facilities at a friend’s home, as an example of both the character’s intellect as well as the wit of our author:
Did I press the wrong buttone, misjudging the amount produced-such presumptuousness, such pride, Renee, two lotus flowers for such a ridiculous contribution-and consequently I am being punished by the earsplitting thunder of divine justice? Am I guilty of overindulging-of luxuriating-in the voluptuousness of the act in a place that inspires voluptuousness, when we should actually think of it as impure? Did I succumb to envy in coveting this princely asswipe, and have therefore been roundly reminded of my deadly sin?
The second character, Paloma, is a suicidal twelve year old child born to a wealthy family. It isn’t that she’s distraught and heart broken, but rather seems motivated to kill herself simply because she doesn’t want to wind up in the same hellish trap of existence she sees all adults in her life residing in. A very intelligent girl whose narrative portions of the story are fun, clever, witty and eventually even moving.
Both characters move along a time line and, for most of the story, are living a paralleled existence until the world tips ever so slightly and they are brought together. The relationship doesn’t set off any great flashes indicating how earth shattering it is, but instead is wrought beautifully and genuinely as it would have happened in life. Just a meeting- and one that changes everything.
The read is incredibly cerebral for the most part, with challenging words and ideas sure to push the vernacular of even some of the most learned fiction readers; its prose is long and elegant with sweeping sentences spanning almost an entire paragraph in it of itself. However, they’re all brilliantly coherent with words I couldn’t even fathom being arranged in a different manner. The complaint I do have, however, is due to the astoundingly head centered story and lack of physical sensation. Seldom do I feel grounded in the scenery except for when the concierge speaks of Tolstoy’s tales nor do I truly feel for the characters.
It’s a remarkable read that just might hearten many a reader bogged down by some deeper and darker works currently in the market. The tale is whimsical, fun, engaging and very well-written with distinctly different voices for both our protagonists. I just wish my heart had been a bit more involved throughout the story than it was. Still, I heartily recommend this book for everything it is and the conversation of what it wasn’t doesn’t detract from that. At all.