In a luxury Parisian apartment building, concierge Renee Michel – squat, homely, antisocial – serves wealthy intellectuals, politicians, and businessmen, intersecting with their lives only when they want packages held, elevator doors polished, or cooked cabbage banned from her diet. Madame Michel doesn’t really mind being overlooked because she has a secret she jealously guards – she is an autodidact with an advanced sense of aesthetics and an intellectual curiosity that ranges further and deeper than that of the entitled set she works for. Behind a camouflage of blaring television programs, net bags of cheap food, and a surly attitude, Madame Michel reads literature and philosophy, explores film and music, and synthesizes her learning into the art of observation and wonderment at life.
Twelve-year old Paloma Josse lives in the same building. Also hiding, but behind a facade of pre-teen angst and cultivated mediocrity, Paloma is determined to find and record moments of beauty and profundity through the last year of her life. Having concluded that she does not want to live the hopeless, cynical, and cyclical existence of the adults around her, Paloma has decided to kill herself (and burn her family’s apartment) on her thirteenth birthday.
Chaos descends on the building when one of the residents dies and his apartment is sold. The new owner, a Mr. Ozu, almost immediately sees through both Madame Michel’s and Paloma’s facades, and begins to draw them out. A tentative but rewarding friendship blossoms among the three, but is cut short when tragedy strikes the trio.
There are moments outside the storyline that are both satirical and hilarious – like a surprising excess of bad taste in Mr. Ozu’s bathroom that turns the assumption of Japanese culture on its head, or a scene in which two pampered pets act like, well, dogs, or two of Mme. Michel’s employers passing her on the street and not recognizing her. There are also some wonderful secondary characters, such as the cleaning lady Manuela, the Josse family, and a nosy neighbor willing to compromise her beliefs on psychiatry and politics to sneak a glimpse at the new neighbor.
In many ways, Mr. Ozu is a cipher to the reader. He is such a brief part of the story, and his sympathy and observation so instant that Mme. Michel’s blossoming under his friendship is on the verge of miraculous. Of course, Mme. Michel is not in need of cultivation like Eliza Doolittle, she merely needs someone to recognize the qualities she already possesses in abundance.
Still, this is Mme. Michel’s and Paloma’s book. Muriel Barbery successfully blends their independent ideas and observations into complementary philosophies , but does so with a minimal plot. The reader must be willing to follow those ruminations to discover the real loveliness of this story.
On a side note, this is actually Barbery’s second book, but the first to be published in English. Gourmet Rhapsody is the story of Pierre Arthens, the food critic who dies in the course of Hedgehog, as he tries to recapture the flavors of his life on his deathbed. Gourmet Rhapsody was published in 2009, following the success of Hedgehog.
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