a very good friend of mine recommended this book to me over the holidays. she'd read it in french, and was thrilled when she found there was a good translation to english so the rest of us could enjoy it. i was so pleased to write her to say how very much i liked this book.
the characters seem very real to me, and i felt that the more i read, the more i wanted to, as the two narrators renee, the concierge, and paloma the little rich girl that lives in the building renee services spun out a story that i understood very well.
the life of renee resonated very much with me, somebody whose interests fall outside her socioeconomic means (i loved opera as a child even though my family could not afford such a luxury -- but i wore down the couple of records we had, and somebody took me a college production of la traviata
). renee was my favourite character, but i do want to point out the reason that i'm only giving this book four stars is that while i loved and identified with her character, sometimes i felt the philosophical discussions that were part of her narrative to be a little dry, and boring which i'm not sure i can blame on my taste for philosophy, and makes me wonder what it's like to take a philosophy course with barbery.
paloma, the other protagonist, irked me a little at first but eventually i couldn't resist her, since i have been her, as she is at this age, in this novel, before. and of course, i can't forget manuela, the portuguese cleaning lady -- i suspect parts of my personality reside with her too. (just not the cleaning parts) :) it seems that this is a book that either one loves or one hates, and i am one of the lovers. reading over negative reviews, it seems a lot of people who didn't like the book had the same kind of trouble with the philosophy i had, but moreover, didn't find these characters realistic at all, and that just sort of underscores for me the fact that each of us brings our own experience to the books we read, and it has a strong affect on their resonance with us, and it is sometimes hard within our own shells to imagine that there are other people who are like the people in a novel we don't recognize. The world and people in the works of jonathan franzen for example, are not for me, and i upset someone very much once because i was so vehement about it, when in their case, they and their whole family had really identified with the corrections.
anyway, there are lots of overt intertextualities here, which might make the book a bit of a challenge for people unfamiliar with japanese culture, tolstoy, and french culture feel a little out of their element but i think the author does a good enough job to provide with enough context to get through.
one of many passages i liked:
"Kakuro was talking about the Russian campaign, and all the swaying, rustling birch trees, and I felt so light, so light...
After I'd had a chance to think about it for a while I began to understand why I felt this sudden joy when Kakuro was talking about the birch trees. I get the same feeling when anyone talks about trees, any trees: the linden tree in the farmyard, the oak tree behind the old bar, the stately elms that have all disappeared now, the pine trees along wind-swept coasts, etc. There's so much humanity in a love of trees, so much nostalgia for our first sense of wonder, so much power in just feeling our own insignificance when we are surrounded by nature... yes that's it: just thinking about trees and their indifferent majesty and our love for them teaches us how ridiculous we are-- vile parasites squirming on the surface of the earth-- and at the same time how deserving of life we can be, when we can honour this beauty that owes us nothing."