First released in August 2006 by Gallimard, the novel became a publishing success in France the following year, selling over a million copies. It has been translatedinto several languages, and published in a number of countries outside France, including the United Kingdom and the United States, attracting critical praise for both the work and its author.
2.1 Renée Michel
2.2 Paloma Josse
2.3 Minor characters
3.1 Style and character development
5.1 Critical reviews6 Film adaptation
8 External links
The story revolves mainly around the characters of Renée Michel and Paloma Josse, residents of an upper-middle class Left Bank apartment building at 7 Rue de Grenelle – one of the most elegant streets in Paris. Divided into eight luxury apartments, all occupied by distinctly bourgeois families, the building has a courtyard andprivate garden.
The widow Renée is a concierge who has supervised the building for 27 years. She is an autodidact in literature and philosophy, but conceals it to keep her job and, she believes, to avoid the condemnation of the building's tenants if they were to discover how cultured she is. Likewise, she wants to be alone to avoid her tenants' curiosity. She effects this by pretending to indulge inconcierge-type food and low-quality television, while in her back room she actually enjoys high-quality food, listens to opera, and reads works by Leo Tolstoy and Edmund Husserl. Her perspective is that "[t]o be poor, ugly and, moreover, intelligent condemns one, in our society, to a dark and disillusioned life, a condition one ought to accept at an early age".
Twelve-year-old Paloma lives onthe fifth floor with her parents and sister whom she considers snobs. A precocious girl, she hides her intelligence to avoid exclusion at school. Dismayed by the privileged people around her, she decides that life is meaningless, and that unless she can find something worth living for, in her words, beyond the "vacuousness of bourgeois existence", she will commit suicide on her 13th birthday onJune 16. She steals her mother's pills, and she plans to burn down the apartment before dying. For the time being she journals her observations of the outside world, including her perceptions of Renée.
Paloma is the only one of the educated tenants who suspects Renée's refinement, and for most of the novel, the two "cross each other but don’t see each other" in the words of Time Out reviewerElisabeth Vincentelli. Although they share an interest in philosophy and thoughts about literature, nothing much happens to them until the death of a celebrated restaurant critic who had been living upstairs. A cultured Japanese businessman named Kakuro Ozu, whom Renée and Paloma befriend, then takes a room in the same apartment building, and Ozu comes to share Paloma's fascination with Renée: thatthe concierge has the "same simple refinement as the hedgehog".
Towards the end of the novel, Barbery brings Renée out of her internal seclusion, and the older woman guides young Paloma toward realizing that not all adults pursue vanity at the expense of their intelligence and humanity. However, only shortly after Renée realizes that the beauty of life and her connections with the world makeslife worth living, she dies in the same way that Roland Barthes did. This leaves Paloma and Ozu devastated but leads Paloma not to commit suicide.
Paloma refers to Renée as having the elegance of the hedgehog.
Renée Michel is a 54-year-old widowed concierge. She has never been to college because she considers herself to always have been poor,...