annotation by Kate Maruyama
This is an engaging book that didn’t really pan out for me and I am still petulant and childishly cross with the ending..
But to go back, before…Barbery lends a lovely voice to Renée, the concierge. She is a bit crabby, perhaps from playing the role too long. Her habits are amusing and her take on the people who live in her building wry and cinematic. Renée admits a penchant for film and the descriptions in this book are so reminiscent of Delicatessen I venture to think the writer has had some filmic influence as well.
Paloma is the more entertaining voice, rambling at a breakneck pace on her feelings about the world. Barbery manages to catch the breathless speed with which the twelve year-old mind thinks and gives us Paloma’s comi-tragic intention of suicide up front. We all find that time in our lives when no one understands us particularly our family and that “when they find me” fantasy runs rampant. Paloma’s impending suicide becomes a nice little ticking clock under our story, although we know it probably won’t come to pass.
The style of the writing is so different from my own, this is one read that didn’t speak volumes on writing to me. I felt myself carried along, charmed and entertained, but fully aware that I was traveling in a foreign country where I can enjoy the coffee, but probably won’t buy any souveniers.
The intellectual argument raised my hackles some. I do understand that class stratification exists in Europe as it doesn’t here. I learned this in my year in England, puzzling at why two very good friends of mine didn’t get along…didn’t even try. Then I realized that one was working class, the other upper middle (joke was on them as they came to visit the US at the same time and were forced to sightsee together). Classes just don’t cross lines there and prejudices run deep. I understood where Renée’s intellectual conceits come from: a defensiveness of sorts. Her being smart and well read was her clever little secret and she kept the others fooled.
But somewhere in Renée’s philosophical musings, Barbery’s message comes in strong and clear: the only people of real value are intellectuals. She clearly conveys the view that the lower classes are vulgar because they have become dead inside to deal with their hardships. um. ick.
While she casts her critical eye on the upper classes: the tenants of the building are dealt with harshly in their wealthy blindness, there is a basic lack of joy in the everyday. While Renée does sing the praises of Manuela, she talks of her intelligence as well, as if defending her choice of friend: Manuela is a closet intellectual of sorts as well, otherwise she would not deign to associate.
Kakuro is a charming fellow from the beginning and the book takes a turn toward the romance novel as he comes on board, genteel, unprejudiced and loving all of the same things as Renée. He helps her make peace with her dreadful lower class past and helps raise her above her station (still yuck). But his charm and entire lack of conflict or trouble with desire made this engaging edgy teen suicide piece into one of those old Folgers coffee commercials with the handsome older gentleman from upstairs. (the gentleman was Giles from Buffy).
Barbery does have a lovely appreciation of beauty and of language, and if I cast the story aside, there are very nice passages, even some I dog-eared. She goes on with an energized voice about her joy for aesthetics and the beauty in every day. Paloma in the end, finds those moments of beauty which give her reason to live. But that did NOT seem worth killing off Renée!.(..says the woman who is writing a book half-filled with dead characters.) Call me old-fashioned, but death needs to fill a purpose in literature. It must either have a point or its pointlessness must make a point. We get engaged with our adorable hedgehog, clean her up, treat her to yummy meals and a chance at love then bump her off with a dry-cleaning van! (is there justice in that, as Renée was always taking in the dry-cleaning? I have no idea). This is sad for Kakuro, and for Paloma, who had already decided not to kill herself because she’d found Renée to be so nice…but it had no narrative purpose. I felt the French accent creep in (as it had been throughout the book) “Ah! C’est la morte!”
What to take away from this amuse bouche?
I adore nice writing and this book was full of it, I love plays on words, cultural references (she had fun with movies), scenes about food and how a nice dress can change your life. But there has to be something larger going on in a book for me to feel satisfied. I felt like the book met Paloma’s description of French food with its creams, sauces, fussiness ending in nothing. It made me want a simple Japanese meal, elegant in its flavors and wholesome on the palate…sustenance.
I’m gonna go read some Banana Yoshimoto now.