by Muriel Barbery
Europa Editions, 2006
This is one of those rare books whose goal is to speak beautifully about beauty. Sounds esoteric? It is in a way. But don’t let this put you off. You will meet two fresh and intriguing characters that speak in brief, alternating chapters (and alternating fonts) of their disdain for bourgeoisie culture and the people who create it. (Now you are really wondering if this is a book you need to read. Trust – the ending will inspire.)
The setting for this novel (translated from the French by Alison Anderson) is a posh Parisian apartment building. Here we meet Renée, the plump, unattractive (by her own assessment) fifty something concierge who manages the building at number at number 7 rue de Grenelle. A brilliant autodidact she hides her intellect and role plays being an uneducated peasant, for fear that if her upper class residents understood her ability they would dismiss her, literally and figuratively. The other, Paloma is a precocious twelve year old whose parents own one of the apartments at rue de Grenelle and who intends, soon, to commit suicide and burn down the apartment building. (All this we find out in the first few spare chapters.)
Sounds suspenseful enough. But do be prepared for a slow walk into the center of this book during which the thoughts of each character dance back and forth with references to Tolstoy, philosophers, music, and the degeneration of language in modern culture. (Renée can go into a tirade over a misplaced comma!) All of which heightens our anticipation that they will meet (and possibly save) one another. Once the pace does pick up – after a new resident moves into the building who will draw out, into the open, both Renée and Paloma – you will wish it would slow.
Promise to the reader: The ending will inspire and teach us to find the “always within the never.”