My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I loved this social satire on modern French manners and society through the main characters.
Take one disenchanted 12-year-old child, smart but cynical for her age, add an equally cynical but likeable concierge/caretaker in a building of private apartments, and then mix in an erudite and wealthy Japanese gentlemen - shake together and see what happens when they meet and interact.
What they have in common is a love of beauty and art. Young Paloma thinks the world is not worth living in, until she discovers what she describes as perfection - the movements of a rising young player in a football game, for instance. The concierge, Renee, hides her love of good food, art, music, and literature behind nondescript clothing, unkempt hair, and a blank face that she shows to the tenants of her building. The Japanese gentleman, Mr. Ozu, is a new tenant who enjoys fine painting, music, and literature.
When Paloma and Mr. Ozu reach the conclusion that Renee the concierge is smarter than she lets on, Mr. Ozu is certain that Renee's cat Leo is named after the Russian writer Tolstoy. Renee decides that Mr. Ozu has found her out; his two cats have the names of characters in Tolstoy's War and Peace after all, and he has begun to observe her with curiousity. Ozu and Renee play cat and mouse games at first, trying to discover more about each other.
Young Paloma is anxious to get away from her wealthy parents and irritating older sister, who are always trying to draw her into meaningless conversations. She finds refuge in Renee's apartment. Mr. Ozu decides to invite Renee, whom everyone sees as a lowly concierge, to his elegant apartment for tea and again for dinner.
What happens next? Well, I won't tell everything!
I liked Renee's philosophical discourses on art, literature, beauty, and life. Her character is drawn to show that social stereotypes are just what they are - stereotypes. A concierge brought up in relative poverty is not what may seem to the outside world. She hides her knowledge of literature and art and her love of classical music because she, like the young girl Paloma, wants to be left alone by people who wouldn't understand her.
For those who like unusual and rebellious characters and who enjoy reading social satire, I recommend The Elegance of the Hedgehog.
Can't wait to read Muriel Barbery's previous book, Gourmet Rhapsody, now out in translation.