by Muriel Barbery
The concierge is an iconic figure in European literature of the past couple centuries. The role is reserved for the poor and the obscure. He or she (though most often a she) is able to observe while not being observed. The wealthy residents of an apartment house tend not to really see the concierge. And the concierge usually has unobserved insight into the lives of her tenants. Occasionally, the concierge is murdered. Often, their roles are small, necessary splashes of color on the story. A concierge can live in happy obscurity, right next to the front door. They are a type perhaps growing less common in the 21st century, replaced maybe by the non-resident property manager. But they're still around, here and there, particularly in the apartments of the wealthy.
Renée Michel, one of the two narrators of this surprising novel, is a concierge of a respectable building on a street in Paris. The entire plot of the story takes place in her loge, and in a few key rooms throughout the building. She is living her part, having come from a poor background not far outside of the city. But it is a part, nevertheless. She is also an autodidact. She relishes the literature of Tolstoy, has even named her cat Leo. She is sharply observant, has cultured tastes, and looks upon the world with the somewhat jaundiced eye of the student of philosophy. But she keeps all of that erudition well hidden from her tenants. She prefers to act the part of the ignorant, mousy and forgotten concierge. She narrates most of this story, with short disquisitions on philosophy and the nature of the world she inhabits. Her insights are gentle, clever and sometimes quite moving.
Meanwhile, up on the fourth floor of her building, 12-year-old Paloma Josse is keeping a diary of her own. Her ruminations parallel those of the concierge downstairs. She looks upon the world with a sharp and philisophical gaze and has concluded that the only logical path is suicide, which she plans to carry out spectacularly upon finishing her current school year. Paloma has the voice of a precocious girl on the brink of young womanhood. Her insights have the air of inevitibility, amusing and despairing by turns.
These two alternate chapters of the book, with Renée having the most pages in which to tell her tale, which figures as she is in her fifties, now, widowed, and has more upon which to reflect. Eventually, Paloma learns to actually see the concierge, and she detects the intellectual life beneath the mask of forgettability Renée cultivates. An older Japanese gentleman moves into a vacant apartment upstairs, and both Paloma and Renée find him fascinating and charming. Kakuro Ozu breaks through Renée's carapace, confusing and charming her by turns. Despite her philisophical tendencies, she is, after all, aware of the class differences that complicate their acquaintance. Paloma, being young and precocious, sees all too well Renée's conflicts. She and Renée still find what joy there is in the unlikely romance. Eventually, all of this pans out in a stunningly moving fashion. The book has been criticized for too easily providing knowing aha moments for the smart reader. But why not? What is all of this philosophy for if not for occasionally having some warm hearted fun with it? In the end, the novel does what all good novels do, searches for meaning and significance in the small moments of beauty in our lives, and in the face of the one fate that awaits us all. Barbery, who is a teacher of philosophy, delivers it all in a deceptively simple story, amusing and often beautiful, ultimately very moving. Highly Recommended.
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