Archive for the Category ◊ Book Reviews ◊

• Saturday, May 27th, 2023

Antoine Laurain was born in Paris in 1972. After finishing high school, he took film studies at university, followed by making short films and attempting screenplay writing. Being a great lover of art, he became the assistant to a Parisian antique dealer.

Immersed in the collectors’ world, Laurain was incentivised to write “The Portrait”, a novella about a fervent art collector. The novella received the Drouot Prize in 2007, encouraging Laurain to pursue his writing and earning him prizes for his subsequent books. Laurain is also a journalist for PalaceScope, a deluxe Paris magazine about lifestyle, fashion, art and creation.

The Red Notebook, published in 2014, is Antoine Laurain’s fifth novel. It starts with the middle-aged widow, Laure Valadier, who works as a gilder. She is about to enter her apartment building late in the evening when she is intercepted by a mugger who snatches her handbag. Laure clings to the handbag and strongly resists the attacker. Nevertheless, to overcome her resistance, the mugger puts the palm of his hand on her face and throws her head against the metal of the building’s door. He then grabs her handbag and runs. A few hours later, Laure is transported to hospital in a coma with a subdural hematoma and remains there for most of the story.

Laurent Lettelier, a middle-aged divorced man and father of a fifteen-year-old daughter, Chloé, is the proprietor of a Parisian bookstore called “Le cahier rouge”. While on the way to his bookshop the day following Laure’s mugging, Lettelier stops for a coffee at a nearby café before going on to work, and while heading for it, he discovers a lady’s purple leather handbag in perfect condition on the lid of a garbage bin.

Intrigued, Lettelier decides to pick up the handbag and hand it in to the nearest police station. However, the long wait and lack of cooperation from the police officers dissuade Lettelier, who then chooses to return the following day. Meanwhile, on further thought, he sorts through all the items in the handbag, hoping to discover the name or address to reunite the bag with its rightful owner, but fails because the wallet and portable telephone are missing.

Even the Moleskine red notebook contains nothing to help guide him to the rightful owner. It is a notebook containing dozens of inspirational thoughts, random opinions and observations, fears and dreams, some absurd and some sensual, arousing the finder’s curiosity. It makes him feel he has opened a door leading to the spiritual sphere of the unknown owner of the red notebook. It incites him to seek out this mysterious woman whose intimate secrets he has happened upon.

The story immerses the reader in everyday Parisian life, and the main character, as a librarian, takes us to the French literary world with French books and French authors, some of them classic writers like Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Proust, Stendhal, Prévert, Eluard and some contemporary ones like the famous Amélie Nothomb, the equally famous Marc Lévy, and the well-known French novelist and Nobel Prize recipient, Patrick Modiano.

The author includes two titles of Modiano’s novels, “Paris Nocturne”, published in 2003 and “Missing Person”, published in 1978. The French writer, photographer, and conceptual artist Sophie Calle, also gets a mention.

In addition, the author refers to some well-known classical novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, like “Les liaisons dangereuses” by Choderlos de Laclos, published in 1782 and “Madame Bovary” by Gustave Flaubert, published in 1857.

We also come across some classic French culinary dishes like the hachis parmentier, the pot-au-feu and even the famous French perfume, Habanita by Molinard, launched in 1921.

The Red Notebook is an original, pleasant, serene, engaging, easy-read short novel with a simple plot, short chapters and two protagonists with sympathetic characters and similar personalities. It is a suspenseful detective story full of accidental discoveries and an unconventional, exciting romance.

It is a pursuit of an enigma, an unusual hunt toward the unknown that slowly shifts into a love affair between two strangers who happen to come across each other fortuitously by fate. Two lives intersect at this critical point in their existence; two passionate strangers seek and discover something in one another.

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Category: Book Reviews  | One Comment
• Friday, April 28th, 2023

Muriel Barbery is a French novelist and philosophy teacher. She was born in Casablanca, Morocco, in 1969 and moved with her parents to France when she was two months old. Barbery attended the lycée Lakanal in Sceaux, France, followed in 1990 by the Ecole normale supérieure in Fonteney-Saint-Cloud, in Lyon, France, where she received her agrégation in philosophy in 1993. She has been a philosophy teacher at the Université de Bourgogne, taught in a lycée and at the Saint-Lô teacher training college.

Muriel Barbery has written a few books. Her second novel, The Elegance Of The Hedgehog, was published in French in 2006 and English in 2008 and was translated into several languages. Soon after its publication, it became a bestseller over a long period. It received the Booksellers’ Prize in 2006, the Georges Brassens Prize and many other prizes, and was made into a film. After quitting her job, Barbery and her husband lived in Japan from 2008 to 2009.

The Elegance Of The Hedgehog has two narrators in the first person and alternating chapters. The first is a fifty-four-year-old caretaker, Renée Michel, who describes herself as a poor short, podgy and ugly widow, and the second narrator, the rich twelve-year-old school girl, Paloma Josse. Paloma lives with her parents and sister in the luxurious Parisian building at seven Rue de Grenelle that Renée has been looking after for twenty-seven years. Paloma keeps two diaries, “Profound Thoughts” and “Journal of the Movement of the World”, in which she writes about her daily comments on occurrences around her and her deep philosophical analysis of her life, its meaning and absurdness.

Renée and Paloma will become friends towards the end of the story because they mirror each other despite their age and class differences. In common, they have loneliness, intelligence, autodidactism, caustic humour, and being discreet about themselves to not be singled out and left alone. Furthermore, they are aware and lucid of the affected, shallow life of people surrounding them. They also both have an affinity with Japanese culture. Moreover, only the alluring, considerate, middle-aged wealthy Japanese new tenant gentleman, Ozu, can see through them, gaining their trust and becoming a mutual friend.

Renée wants the residents of the building to believe that she is an ordinary concierge and therefore acts like one. She conceals from everybody that she is knowledgeable and self-taught in philosophy, literature, art, classical music, Japanese films and paintings. She secretly reads Tolstoy, Proust, Kant, Husserl and Tolstoi, and is fond of seventeenth-century Dutch paintings. She discreetly listens to music by Purcell or Mahler and likes watching Japanese films by the director Yasujiro Ozu. She spends her time in introspection and self-reflection.

Paloma shares with Renée the concealment of her intelligence and knowledge to people around her. She is a precocious, bright child, a good, sharp, analytical and mordant writer, not lacking humour in her descriptions. She is sickened by the superficiality of her bourgeois family and the despicable emptiness of the bourgeoisie’s existence around her as well as the decadence of society in general.

She decides to end her torments by committing suicide on her thirteenth birthday, June sixteenth, by taking sleeping tablets while staying for the night with her grandmother. However, before leaving and when her parents and sister are out, she intends to set fire to her parent’s luxurious apartment and call the fire brigade to save the tenants in the building from harm.

The Elegance Of The Hedgehog is a touching, masterfully and elegantly written book with rich, meticulously chosen French vocabulary seldom used today, which enhances the quality of the writing and enriches the story to give it substance to savour with delectation. The chapters are short, the eccentric characters are well depicted, and both protagonists’ reflections are cleverly amusing in tone. The Elegance Of The hedgehog describes the social classes and the contrasting life between “Upstairs and Downstairs” in an opulent building in one of the wealthiest Paris neighborhoods.

The book has a myriad of citations about classical authors, famous painters, films and film directors. Philosophy is palpable in the book, which alludes to the author’s studies and qualifications.

The novel’s title is explained by the perceptive Paloma when she tells Ozu that appearances can be deceptive, “Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside, she’s covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptivley indolent little creature, fiercely solitary and terribly elegant”.