Sunday, September 27, 2009
Ah, France! This novel, with such French attitude, scoffs at the wealthy for their shallowness, as well as their unmerited sense of cultural superiority over the social classes below them. Barbery does this by focusing her story around two central characters: the door-woman of an elegant resident building in central Paris and the twelve year old daughter of one of the families living in the building. Both of these characters are made to be the most culturally and intellectually astute individuals in the novel, much more so than the barbarians that grace the floors of the building.
It would be easy to dismiss the stereotypes portrayed of French society as cliche', however, they are made so apparent throughout the novel that their blatancy somehow makes them comical. Instead, the subtler aspects of the book touch on more philosophical arguments regarding such subjects as art, beauty, the purpose of life, and human existence - shall we say the pain et beurre of French intellectual thought.
The story is simple and for this reason pleasurable. The door-woman, Ms. Michel, lives what at first glance appears to be a monotonous life, ignored by the inhabitants of the building. However, she finds comfort in this solitude and actually makes all efforts possible to draw as little attention to herself as possible. To do so she must hide all her intellectual pursuits as not to raise any questions in the eyes of the pseudo-intellects around her. However, they are probably too stupid to pick up on them anyway. When Ms. Michel is not reading Russian literature, she is hammering away at the shallow and miserable lives of the rich around her. There is a certain sense of irony here since the pursuits such as shopping, shampooing hair multiple times and wearing make-up are looked down upon by her that is until she catches the eye of a new resident to the building - Mr. Oke, a retired Japanese.
Mr. Oke, being someone truly steeped in culture and intellectual capacity is quickly able to see how the door-woman is not a typical type. He then begins inviting her to various activities much as Richard Gere did to Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. The response of Ms. Michel is not much different in that those superficial activities of the wealthy become appealing as soon as someone comes along who is interested in her.
When compared to modern American novels, this book is more layered in that it offers a straightforward story of its characters but also dives deeper into more philosophical discussions. There are a lot of cultural references as well. What I see as being the major difference when compared to modern American novels is how Barberry writes to a more educated, cultured audience than most writers do in the States. As this book was the bestselling one in France over the last couple of years, we can assume therefore, that it was read by people of all socioeconomic backgrounds. Heaven help us if it had only remained in the upper echelons of French society!