by Muriel Barbery
read for bookclub
Overall – this book is not for everyone, but holy crap it grew on me, and I ended up loving it. It makes you think, it helps open your mind (whenever I say that I think of Kwato from the original Total Recall “open your mind” in the whispery baby weird voice, with his little baby puppet lips that don’t fully connect with each other and his hand is reaching towards Arnie’s head, ewww) and it makes you laugh. After I got through the first third, and the Japanese man moves into the building I was giddy with anticipation of the story.
We have Renee, a concierge who likes to read and learn and enjoy the finer things in life, but she is a concierge, and isn’t expected to be smart. She lives how she thinks people expect her to be…stupid and watching TV etc. Paloma is 12, highly intelligent but hides it behind forced mediocrity and is going to kill herself when she turns 13. Why? Because basically there is no great meaning to life and she doesn’t want to become an adult and have children, thus continuing the lie that adults are fulfilled. She is willing to entertain reasons to change her mind though. They are both WAY TOO smart. I mean Paloma is 12, how precocious can you be? And Renee about had a coronary because of an unneeded comma in a note, how could she not have given herself away before now? Anyway, it was fun so you roll with some of it.
There are all sorts of interesting ideas, thoughts, random bits of funny and quotes as you read this. I wanted to highlight so much of the text as I started reading! There is also a lot of philosophy (I did NOT do well in philosophy!) but the chapters are only 2 – 4 pages long, thank goodness. Because while I was often in over my head, it didn’t last long. Kind of like getting into the big waves at the beach. They come in sets, you can mostly avoid the white water, but if you can’t, just go with the flow and you will eventually get to breathe again. Try to avoid face plants…
So on the back of the book The New York Times had a good description – they say that “both [protagonists] create eloquent little essays on time, beauty and the meaning of life…” That is the best way to describe many of the chapters, because we are in the characters heads, listening to their thoughts on something or another. The story itself surrounds these essays, isn’t too long, or complex, but is lovely.
So we have two smart people running around, doing a lot of thinking and living below their potential by hiding their true nature. Though they occasionally slip up, they fix things hilariously “To further eradicate any trace of my lexical misdeeds, I allow myself a little heresy.” (pg 82) They look down on everyone else and are quite cynical actually. My cup of tea! However, it will be depressing, then it would crack me up. The story itself was good. The stuff you can learn is great. But I struggled, I forced myself to pick it up, then it became easier. I am just not reading stuff like this these days. I don’t read Kant, Tolstoy or Marx, I don’t get some of these little jokes and I am sure they would make fun of me, since they poke fun at everyone else. In fact, I am pretty sure I fit a few demographics they put down…and I am sure I have left a dangling participle or put too many commas in this review.
The only thing is, the language is great to read, once you are used to it, but impossible to read out loud. I would find something funny and read a line to my husband and it would a word salad I couldn’t get my mouth around. He would look at me and say “I could not read that book.” Here is an example…
“I learned that this contamination of my aspiration to high culture by my penchant for lower forms of culture does not necessarily represent the indelible mark of my lowly origins or of my solitary striving for enlightenment but is, rather, a contemporary characteristic of the dominant intellectual class.” (pg 76) Say that three times fast. But this quote made me feel good because sociologists say you can still be smart but crave the lowest form of entertainment. So there, in your face! Oh wait, sorry, got excited there…
So, I liked it a lot, though it made my mind wander which was actually enjoyable as I felt awake – does that make sense? Then after the first half I couldn’t put it down. I was understanding the language, more of the thoughts were interesting to me and I love loved how Monsieur Ozo and Paloma worked together to pull Renee from her shell.
It was lovely, quiet, thoughtful and happy yet sad. It is a keeper as I want to revisit some of those essays. Because it wasn’t a story to lose yourself in but more a character study and thoughts about life I thought a lot about my life and where things are going and how many of these ideas fit. I liked it, but it took me a while to get there. It was a little like going to listen to music, you hear it, then it flows around you while your mind wanders, then you come back. At first I felt like a wanna-be hipster or pseudo-intellectual who was reading this to look smart. Anyway, by the end I was fully engaged and loved this book. Only three of us read the book in our bookclub, so there you go, I give it 5 twinkling stars, but it is not an easy read.