I thought this was an absolutely beautiful, wonderful, funny, heartbreaking book. Wow. This book made me think, feel, laugh, and cry. Muriel Barbery is a philosopher by trade and you can certainly see this in the story of the novel’s two protaganists. The story takes place in a very chic apartment building in Paris where Madame Renee Michel is a self-described thick set, bulbous, cantakerous concierge who is scornful of the building’s wealthy, snobbish tenants. What they don’t know, and what Madame Michel doesn’t allow them to see is that she has a keen intelligence, a prodigious love of philosophy, art and Japanese culture and is extremely well versed in the arts and culture.
The novel’s other protaganist is 12 year old Paloma Josse, the precocious, brilliant daughter of socialist parents. At the beginning of the novel Paloma is determined to set her parents’ apartment on fire and kill herself by her 13th birthday. She has a keen eye for artifice, cruelty and deception and she feels trapped by her family and social status and doesn’t understand the value and meaning of life.
When an intriguing, wealthy Japanese gentleman moves into the building, who against all social convention, befriends Paloma and Madame Michel, it sets in motion a series of self-revelations that can only take place in the face of true life changing friendship.
What we see through the eyes Madame Michel are the often cruel prejudices exercised against people that are considered ‘below our station’ and that render them invisible. But what she brings to us are those incredible moments of arresting beauty that make us carry on in spite of everything.
With Paloma we see something different. As a member of the privileged class she has the unique intelligence to play cat and mouse with her ‘victims’ that reveals their shallow stupidity. Her journey to try and find the meaning of life in all of this is what is so extraordinary.
While all of this sounds quite serious the book is really quite funny. Paloma and Renee are really the same people in different bodies and in different situations but they both have an extraordinary wit and a deep love for language and culture which reveals itself on every page. I will read this book again.