Publishers Weekly: "By turns very funny (particularly in Paloma's sections) and heartbreaking . . . [Barbery's] simple plot and sudden denouement add up to a great deal more than the sum of their parts."
Date: May 19 2008
This dark but redemptive novel, an international bestseller, marks the debut in English of Normandy philosophy professor Barbery. Renée Michel, 54 and widowed, is the stolid concierge in an elegant Paris hôtel particulier. Though “short, ugly, and plump,” Renée has, as she says, “always been poor,” but she has a secret: she's a ferocious autodidact who's better versed in literature and the arts than any of the building's snobby residents. Meanwhile, “supersmart” 12-year-old Paloma Josse, who switches off narration with Renée, lives in the building with her wealthy, liberal family. Having grasped life's futility early on, Paloma plans to commit suicide on her 13th birthday. The arrival of a new tenant, Kakuro Ozu, who befriends both the young pessimist and the concierge alike, sets up their possible transformations. By turns very funny (particularly in Paloma's sections) and heartbreaking, Barbery never allows either of her dour narrators to get too cerebral or too sentimental. Her simple plot and sudden denouement add up to a great deal more than the sum of their parts.