(For those of you saying farewell to the Oxford comma: quirky, smart and charming. This comment will make sense later.)
Barbery’s work is translated from the French by Alison Anderson and it must have been a bitch because there is a lot about the importance and power of language usage. But not in a boring way. Nerdy yes, but not boring.
The book takes place in a ritzy apartment building filled with bourgeois families who proudly insist on falling into the stereotypical role of being the bourgeois. Everything must be just so, social rules must be followed, and no one must step out of the social order.
Our two main characters are Renée and Paloma. Renée is the concierge of the building, something I struggled with at first. Not having money or living in Paris, it took me a bit to figure out what in the heck her role was. She’s sort of like the building supervisor. She makes sure packages are signed for, keeps the plants watered, and makes sure the building is in the condition that the apartment owners expect.
Apparently there is a stereotype that concierges are lazy and stupid, and Renée carefully maintaines this act to the point of panicking if she thinks someone gets a hint that she’s actually quite smart and cultured. She loves language, art, music and philosophy, but refuses to show any of this outside of her small apartment. I kept wondering if this was some ingrained social status issue, and perhaps it is, but eventually we learn something that explains it a bit more.
Paloma is twelve and is ready to kill herself. Not because she’s in the depths of teenage angst and despair but because she’s too smart and aware to deal with the pressure and pointlessness of class and society. She detests the roles that people play. She sees everything as an act and is both scared and disdainful that no one seems to know it’s an act except for her. She plans on burning her family’s apartment when she dies to take the pointless materialistic things with her and to prove that there are other things for people to worry about.
I really liked Paloma’s character. Sketched out, she seems like she’d be an emo whiner and t0o disassociated to be interesting, but she’s clever and sees things that other people miss and even though you disagree with her suicide plan, part of you sort of agrees with it, even though you know it’s wrong.
So, Renée and Paloma go about their lives, hiding their true selves from the world.
And then Ozu moves in.
Ozu is a wealthy Japanese man who sees things even clearer than Paloma does. He either isn’t aware of the social steps and rules, or he simply doesn’t care. Both Renée and Paloma find themselves revealing their true selves to him. Renée fights it, not wanting to break the rules she has painstakingly created for herself. Paloma is much happier being unhappy with him and begins to rethink her plans, even though she knows people are phonies.
The ending came out of nowhere and I was a bit miffed, but Barbery keeps writing and pulls things together. At first I thought it was a bit of a cheap stunt, but Renée’s monologue and Paloma and Ozu’s reaction made it OK.
One of the things I really liked about this book was how much Renée loves language and words. She is horrified when the upper class make grammatical errors. A misplaced comma is a slap in the face. These people are supposed to be superior to her in every way! A misplaced comma? Unacceptable.
It’s hard to summarize this book into a genre or compare it to other books. It’s original and part of me wonders if it read that way because it’s French. Parts definitely did not fit my American experience but then there were universal themes that made complete sense.
I liked it, yet I have a hard time expressing why. And that makes me like it even more.