Rating: One cup of warmed sake, served in the traditional wooden box. And maybe some foie gras.
Yes, there are two Japanophiles in this book set in Paris. There are no hedgehogs.
I liked this book more than most I’ve read so far on my armchair journey. It was kind of a French Alexander McCall Smith, if you married the palatable-philosophy-in-a-novel-experience of his Sunday Philosophy Club series with the goodhearted people-improving-their-lives-by-helping-others of his Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency series. Oh, la la! Break out the champagne.
One day long ago I spent 72 hours in Paris…on my way to Le Havre to catch a ferry for Cork, Ireland. Somehow I managed to cram in the Champs d’Elysee along with Sacre Coeur, the Tower Eiffel, the Louvre, a Monet Museum, and a croissant and a quiche at the Gare du Nord. So it was a pleasure to finally be able to take a deep breath, slow down, and give Muriel Barbery’s Paris the attention it deserves.
What It’s All About
There are two narrators: A suicidal 12-year-old rich girl who correctly perceives the emptiness of the parasitical lives of her family and their friends and social circle; and the concierge of her building–a woman who grew up dirt poor and is afraid to reveal how sophisticated and intelligent she has become by educating herself.
When a wealthy and kind Japanese widower moves into the apartment complex, everyone’s lives change.
The sucker punch at the end did not distress me unduly because I had flipped ahead and saw it coming. Still, the book offers redemption for one of its main characters. I could see redemption for the other also–it just wasn’t spelled out.
How You Think When You’re 12
I think the best thing about this book was the tension between the righteous contempt of the 12-year-old diarist and her naivete.
(For example, she despises her older sister’s birthday dinner at a fancy French restaurant where the food is sparse, expensive and pretentious. Yes, totally. But then she says Japanese food seems more honest. Well, I remember paying an exorbitant amount in Tokyo for a large plate on which, I kid you not, there was a mound of shaved ice decorated with hydrangea blossoms and three tiny pieces of sashimi. I was used to the stupid-large portions served in America, and found myself surprised and a little irritated every time I had to hit Mossburger after I had just had “dinner” with friends at a nice place.)
The other best thing about this book was the mystery of why Renee, the concierge, takes such pains to appear completly sterotypical and hide who she really is. And her transformation as she begins to come out of her shell and connect with others.
Somehow, despite the characters’ fascination with Japan, it’s essentially and quintessentially French. Or maybe that fantasy is French too–remember all the Oriental vases at Versailles?