This novel begins promisingly.
Two intriguing characters are introduced.
The first is Renée, a 54-year old concierge who, in her own words is “short, fat and ugly”. Protagonists with this type of profile are much neglected on the literary landscape.
The second character of interest is a less neglected type – a highly intelligent, pre-pubescent, rich girl.
What do these ladies, each poised at either end of the female fertility spectrum, have in common? They both hide their intelligence.
Renée does so mainly because of a childhood trauma that has made her fearful of rising above her social station.
Paloma, the young girl, hides her ferocious cleverness because she’s afraid she’ll never have a moment’s peace if she lets anybody know how gifted she really is.
We know that these two characters’ paths will cross in some meaningful way because the novel clearly sets itself up for this event.
While we are waiting for their worlds to collide, we are entertained by details of their lives and thoughts (via a first person narrative that switches between Renée and Paloma). There are snapshots of Paris, too.
Renée has a “clandestine erudite” passion for literature, music and film. She despairs at the language used by some of the wealthy inhabitants of the luxury apartment building at which she works. She notes that despite their pedigrees and privileges, society’s elite, are not above expressing themselves in a colloquial manner or misusing punctuation when they leave written messages. More often than not, they are overly concerned about trivial matters such as the fact that the rubbish stinks.
On the rare occasions when someone addresses Renée politely, in archaic language even, she finds herself very much under their spell.
Paloma also has very strict views on grammar and almost has a meltdown when her French teacher splits an infinitive and explains that the point of learning grammar is “to make us speak and write better”.
Paloma’s view is that “grammar is a way to attain Beauty…when you are applying the rules of grammar skilfully, you ascend to another level of the beauty of language.”
These types of interludes make the novel worthwhile for me.
Both characters are jolted out of their routines when Monsieur Ozu, a Japanese gentleman, moves into the building. Renée and Paloma are thrilled because each, in her own way, has a bent for Japanese culture.
Unfortunately, Monsieur Ozu is something of a caricature. To his credit however, he points out to Renée, when she is griping about her humble origins, that: “you are not the only one who goes against the social norms…This is the twenty-first century, for goodness’ sake!”
Alarmingly, with Monsieur Ozu on the scene, the novel takes an unusual turn – moving in a Pretty Woman direction, albeit with a middle-aged heroine.
Towards the end, there is another unexpected twist, which I won’t divulge, except to say, I finished the book in tears!
This is not a perfect novel. It has some clever things to say, but sometimes the profound thoughts of the heroines are less than earth-shattering. Also the plot shows signs of resolving itself in a cosy and conventional manner before it takes a bold and surprising turn. I like the element of surprise but not the surprise itself.
Ultimately it’s a good book but only in certain parts. It doesn’t live up to its early promise.
I will be watching the film and I’m sure I will find fault there too.
Deep breath: the next book on my “to read” list is War and Peace.