Style and character development
Barbery developed the character of Renée because she was "inspired by the idea of a reserved, cultured concierge who turned stereotypes on their head and at the same time created a compelling comic effect"; for the author, Renée "opened the door on a kind of social criticism". In an interview with Time magazine, Barbery added that she created characters "who love the things [she does], and who allowed [her] to celebrate that through them". Barbery dedicates the book to her husband, Stéphane, a sociologist, with whom she wrote the book.
The novel's two narrators, Renée and Paloma, alternate in each mostly short chapter, although the former dominates throughout. The novel consists of the "diaries" of the protagonists, and the heading styles and fonts change as it develops, signalling the change of the narrators' character.
Most critics considered Barbery's narrative presentation to be essayistic; the individual chapters are more akin to essays than fiction, as The New York Times ' Caryn James expresses it, "so carefully build[ing] in explanations for the literary and philosophical references that she seems to be assessing what a mass audience needs". The early pages of the novel contain a short critique by Renée on the topic of phenomenology.
Barbery incorporates several themes into the novel. References to philosophy, for instance, abound throughout, getting increasingly dense as the story progresses. Barbery confesses to having "followed a long, boring course of studies in philosophy", and comments that "I expected it to help me understand better that which surrounds me: but it didn't work out that way. Literature has taught me more. I was interested in exploring the bearing philosophy could really have on one's life, and how. I wanted to illuminate this process. That's where the desire to anchor philosophy to a story, a work of fiction, was born: to give it more meaning, make it more physically real, and render it, perhaps, even entertaining."
Themes of class consciousness and conflict are also present in the book. Critics interpreted the stance the novel took against French class-based discrimination and hypocrisy as quite radical, although some French critics found that this made the novel an unsubtle satire of fading social stereotypes. There are also literary allusions in the novel, referencing comic books, movies, music, and paintings.