This is a difficult book to categorise and that, in itself, makes it interesting. Is it a deeply philosophical story about the beauty of art, the loneliness of the artistic soul and the French class system? Or is it a pretentious and unconvincing story about unlikely characters?
Renée is a 54-year-old concierge in an apartment block catering to wealthy Parisians. She is patronised and belittled by the residents, but is complicit in the way she is treated, since she makes a concerted effort to disguise her true nature and her love of art and literature. Paloma is the troubled 12-year-old daughter of one of the families who live in the apartment block. She, too, hides her intellect from her family and, convinced of the futility of life, has resolved to kill herself on her 13th birthday. Their stories are told in alternate chapters (helpfully, each voice is characterised by a different typeface) and the first part of the book deals with their philosophical musings and their disdain for virtually everyone around them.
We, the readers, can see how much they have in common, but they are each so self-obsessed and introverted that a meeting of minds seems unlikely. Then one of the residents dies and the apartment is sold to a Japanese gentleman who, in a matter of moments, perceives and understands their separate loneliness and prickly defensiveness. He is the catalyst who breaks through their shells and encourages them to reveal their true natures.
The second half of the novel, which deals with this awakening, is more satisfying. Instead of chapters of interminable solipsistic philosophy, we get a story. Eureka! Although this meant, for me, that the book became a pleasure to read rather than a chore, I was still left with the feeling that it was all rather too pat and therefore unbelievable. Both Renée and Paloma emerge from their shells remarkably quickly. Would Renée, who has submerged her true identity so thoroughly and successfully, have succumbed so easily to revealing herself to others? Would she and Paloma have established such a close friendship in such a short time?
On balance, while there are flaws, I'm glad I read this book. I took from it the message that we should seek the moments of beauty in life and treasure them. Accordingly, I found myself turning to the poetry of Keats when I'd finished the book, which cannot be a bad thing.