Bonnie Smith here tells Madame Lucie's colorful life history, first by skillfully recording the concierge's reminiscences and then by describing her own observations as a participant in Madame Lucie's world. The overall effect is an unusual, richly textured image of modern France as it was experienced by a figure of the working class. Madame Lucie's life and her memories—moving, engrossing, entertaining—are a valuable source of insight into French culture and society. As she herself says early in the book, "What I'm telling is the history of France."
Oral history, or telling of a common life, from the lips of an ordinary French shopkeeper's daughter, from the 1890s to the present. Madame Lucie was born in Caen, a town in the provinces, she moved here and there, her fortunes rose and fell and for 40 years she was a concierge for about 40 tenant families in a building on the Passage des Chats in Paris. Historian Smith met her subject in 1971 when her family moved into Madame Lucie's. The present book was pieced together over 15 years as Madame Lucie recounted her life in nonchronological bits, sometimes without names, and with details misremembered. When she war four, during La Belle Epoque in Normandy, her father's store sold supplies for plumbing, gas, and electricity, while her grandmother was a baker. The girl became a superb seamstress, worked for her mother, a milliner. When her father, a drinker, went bankrupt, the scandalized family moved to Lisieux where Mother opened a new boutique and Lucie spent long hours making hats. Her first fiance died in WW I. But soon she was a married woman with two children, trying to make ends meet. Her husband got a job with Ford and stayed until retirement. After WW II she accepted a job as concierge - "My heart sank at the humiliation of it all. Hauling garbage cans, cleaning common toilets, serving as the butt of ridicule and intrigue. . .I was never raised to be a concierge." Here Smith takes over the telling from the recent past. Madame Lucie is in terrible health. Her building is now a polyglot Tower of Babel. She lives in a disaster of cats and at an advanced age is still hard at work while caring for her self-involved children and grandchildren. At last, with two detached retinas, halt and memoryless, she must retire, but the stuff of life is still scandal, family, illnesses. Madame Lucie's story is emblematic of a certain kind of French existence in this century. And the old rock of a woman is moving just as a survivor. Somehow, the first half of her book, from her own mouth, is less gripping than Smith's personal retelling of her more recent circumstances-Smith as historian is more interesting than Madame Lucie as raconteuse - which points up something awry about the strategies of this book. Madame Lucie's pieced-together monologue is the story's supposed reason for being, and yet the formal demands Smith imposes on the monologue make it less intense and immediate than the book's mess-of-life, sprawly, groaning second half. (Kirkus Reviews)