Ask a Book Question: The 67th in a Series (The Concierge)

October 13, 2008 | 1 book mentioned 1 2 min read

Theresa writes in with this request:

I saw a book at Barnes & Noble one day. It was on the new book table. But there was only one copy, and not sure if it’s a new book translation or someone just dropped the book on the table. The book was a translation and fiction. The storyline is about a woman who is the “concierge” or lobby supervisor of an apartment building. She secretly loves art and music, but is aloof and “grumpy.” She befriends a little girl that has just moved into the building, along with a man who enjoys music.

I think it is translated from a female french author (she has had other of her books translated).

Unfortunately, I didn’t write the name of the book down, or the author. When I went back to get the book, it was gone. I thought the title was a synonym of “concierge”, but not sure. I even asked a friend of mine who was a French teacher and she couldn’t think of the word. I have checked Barnes & Noble online, but the book doesn’t show up.

Any ideas on the name of this book? It has been driving me crazy.

I can think of few things more frustrating than spying what looks like an intriguing book, only to lose it to the fastidiousness of a book store clerk. Luckily, in this case, a little research has turned up the answer to this missed connection.

The book Theresa seeks is The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery and translated by Alison Anderson, and the plot is much as Theresa recalls:

We are in the center of Paris, in an elegant apartment building inhabited by bourgeois families. Renee, the concierge, is witness to the lavish but vacuous lives of her numerous employers. Outwardly she conforms to every stereotype of the concierge: fat, cantankerous, addicted to television. Yet, unbeknownst to her employers, Renee is a cultured autodidact who adores art, philosophy, music, and Japanese culture. With humor and intelligence she scrutinizes the lives of the building’s tenants, who for their part are barely aware of her existence. Then there’s Paloma, a twelve-year-old genius…

coverThe book was recently put out by Europa, a smaller publisher known for its championing of translated works, and was a big seller in France. According to Time, which profiled Barbery recently, The Elegance of the Hedgehog had been “at or near the top of France’s sales charts for 102 straight weeks since its September 2006 publication” through the end of August this year. Muriel Barbery is French and something of an overnight sensation in her country:

Only two years ago, Barbery, 39, was a philosophy teacher in Normandy whose spare-time fiction writing had produced a single published work: the 2000 novel Une Gourmandise (A Delicacy). That tale of a world-famous food critic with deathbed yearnings for life’s forgotten tastes won her a single award for culinary writing and a few encouraging reviews. Elegance, by contrast, which the weekly L’Express hailed for celebrating “the tiny pleasures of life… with the timeless nostalgia of a Marcel Proust,” seems to have scored a direct hit on the global zeitgeist.

Thanks for the great question and enjoy the book!

See also: The Elegance of the Hedgehog would be a great answer to our 52nd book question.

created The Millions and is its publisher. He and his family live in New Jersey.

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