It's the most charming tale (translated, in my edition, from French to English by Alison Anderson -- translators really deserve more credit than they often get, in my opinion) about a concierge employed at a hôtel particulier in the very bourgeois 7th arr. Against all the expectations of her banally bourgeois employers (the inhabitants of the eight luxury apartments at number 7, rue de Grenelle), 54-year old Renée, a "short, ugly, and plump" widow with bunions, as she describes herself, loves Mahler, reads Death in Venice when she's not reading philosophy, has a love of cinema eclectic enough to embrace both "American blockbusters and art-house films," and almost gives herself away by blurting out "You ought to read The German Ideology" in response to "the Pallières boy" and his smug claim about how Marx changed his worldview.
The novel offers twin narratives, one told by Renée and the other told by Paloma, a twelve-year old girl who lives with her family in the building. Her father is a parliamentarian; her mother has a PhD in literature so that she "writes her dinner invitations without mistakes and spends her time bombarding us with literary references." Paloma is exceptionally gifted, but not wanting to stand out, knowing her parents would impose exhausting expectations, she works hard to scale back her academic performance, managing to make being first in her class at school seem the result of effort. Paloma has decided, on the available evidence, that life is rather pointless, indeed absurd, and she's resolved to commit suicide on her 13th birthday. But since she recognizes that her assessment might be flawed, she's decided to keep a journal of observations, looking for something that might convince her that life is worth a chance. (I do wish she could have the opportunity to discuss her decision-making with another bright teen girl, equally isolated in her intelligence, and to do so, she'd only have to slip into the pages of Kate Atkinson's When Will There Be Good News)
Just as the reader suspects, these characters eventually pierce each others' veils, getting behind the fronts they present to the rest of the world to build a welcome companiability. Their relationship is enhanced and augmented by the addition of a new tenant, an elegant older Japanese man, Kakuro Ozu, also widowed, who quickly discerns Renée's true worth. I won't tell you more, plot-wise, for fear of spoiling your own enoyment when you (and you must!) read this novel, but I'll share a few of my favourite quotations from it.
First, although it exposes me as a punctuation pedant, I love Renée's rant against the horrid comma she encounters in a note from one of her wealthy tenants, a woman who "sits on the selection committee of a very prestigious publishing house. Here's the offending comma: "Would you be so kind as, to sign for the packages . . ." Reading it, Renée declares that she "was not prepared for such an underhanded attack [and] collapsed in shock on the nearest chair" at the "dribbling scribbling on vellum . . . this comma slicing the sentence in half with all the trenchancy of a knife blade." Renée goes on to say that she could easily forgive such an error if it came from someone with less opportunity to have learned the correct punctuation, but considering the source, she has no such patience. As she says, and I'll quote the better part of a paragraph here (and probably trot it out from time to time for my poor students!),
For those who have been favored by life's indulgence, rigorous respect in matters of beauty is a non-negotiable requirement. Language is a bountiful gift and its usage, an elaboration of community and society, is a sacred work. Language and usage evolve over time: elements change, are forgotten or reborn, and while there are instances where transgression can become the source of an even greater wealth, this does not alter the fact that to be entitled to the liberties of playfulness or enlightened misusage when using language, one must first and foremost have sworn one's total allegiance. Society's elect, those whom fate has spared from the servitude that is the lot of the poor, must, consequently, shoulder the double burden of worshipping and respecting the splendors of language. Finally, Sabine Pallières's misuse of punctuation constitutes an instance of blasphemy that is all the more insidious when one considers that there are marvelous poets born in stinking caravans or high-rise slums who do have for beauty the sacred respect that it is so rightfully owed.