One of the topics that surfaces on book discussion web sites on a regular basis is the controversy over what constitutes “literary fiction.” The anti-literary fiction crowd rants about pretension and elitism and “too many big words” and “I don't want to read 10 pages about some woman worrying about her cat.” I personally have read a lot of literary fiction and I've never encountered that cat lady. I'm still waiting for the anti-literary fiction folks to tell me which one it is.
But for those of us who are enthralled by depth, compassion, lyricism, and books that linger in the mind, there is no substitute for quality literary fiction. For a couple of years I have been recommendations through Goodreads and other literary web sites for MurielBarbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog I get these little notes in my email that say, “Book-lovin' Lucy thinks you will like...” and then a bright graphic of the front cover. I put the book in my TBR list and Tuesday, for whatever reason, I started it.
For the first few chapters I thought “hmmm, maybe those anti-literary fiction people have a point, this sounds pretty pretentious” but then, I don't know what happened but everything clicked. Suddenly I found myself totally sunken in to this extraordinary story.
Basically it is the story of two women living in an upscale apartment house in Paris. It is the sort of place in which no one ever buys an apartment, they inherit it. Renee is the concierge. She is, by her own admission, a dumpy, frumpy, un-prepossesing 50-something woman who is treated as a servant by most of the residents of the building. But inside Renee is an astonishing woman. She is brilliant and cultured with a deep understanding of philosophy, an appreciation for art and music, and a comprehensive knowledge of literature. She may spend her worklife being anonymous among Paris glitterati but in the quiet of her own little loge she lives a life of incomparable richness.
Paloma, on the other hand, is the daughter of privilege. She lives in one of the elegant apartments with her sophisticated parents and a socially sophisticated older sister. Paloma is also extremely intelligent. She reads widely and knows far more than she is emotionally prepared to deal with and her superior knowledge has brought her to the conclusion that she would be best off to commit suicide when she turns 13. As we get to know her we see that, though intellectually she is well ahead of the resto her family, emotionally she is a 12 year old – and a very miserable one at that. All her intellect does not prepare her for a 12 year old's sense that life is just unfair and people are creeps.
The book is just a joy. The writing is beautiful. The digressions into philosophy and art are fascinating, and the two characters are irresistible. As I read I grew more and more attached to them as I worried bout what was to come of them.
Then a remarkable thing happens. A tenant who has no family dies and the apartment is to be sold. The new owner is a tall, handsome, wealthy and sophisticated Japanese man named Kakuro Ozu. Both Paloma and Renee are fascinated by the new tenant and he is equally fascinated by them. Through their interaction with him they discover each other and soon Paloma realizes what a remarkable woman Renee is.
I don't want to tell much more of the story but it is beautiful and sad and wonderful and unforgettable. One of the most touching moments for me comes toward the end of the story when a young man who had once been an addict and a good-for-nothing comes back to visit Renee and to show her that he is now clean and sober. She is very pleased for him and then he tells her that during all the tough, miserable process of getting off of drugs the thing that kept him focused was thinking about the flowers in her garden. She is astonished and he describes the flowers and asks what they are called. “Camellias,” she says. So beautiful.
I can honestly say this book is not for everyone. But for those of us who get it, it is gorgeous.
Thanks for reading.