Life has a funny way of being coincidental. I was about halfway through reading this book – written by Anthony Doerr – when this review came out. I contemplated putting the book down and letting that review stand on its own, but I decided to finish the book and publish my own review, if for no other reason than to form my own opinion. I’m glad I did!
Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks. When she is six,
Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. When
she is 12, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great-uncle lives in
a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.
In a mining town in Germany, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find. Werner becomes an expert at building
and fixing these crucial new instruments, a talent that wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then a special assignment to track the resistance.
More and more aware of the human cost of his intelligence, Werner travels through the heart of the war and, finally, into Saint-Malo, where his story and
A Note about Audio
If you know French – and even if you don’t – skip the commercial audio narrated by Zach Appleman. The narrator’s French is butchered so badly that I had given up on two previous attempts to finish this book in audio. I got through about a third of the audiobook this time before I gave up and switched to a text copy.
I’ve always been fascinated and interested in books taking place in Europe leading up to and during World War II. I felt the despair in the children’s home where Werner grew up, the changing landscape of Paris before the Germans occupied it, and the town of Saint-Malo (and other cities and towns) as the war raged on. Some might find the shifting in time confusing, as the stories of Werner and Marie-Laure diverge and converge, but the book is so poetic that I found myself glued to the pages. Using darkness as a plot device both physical and figurative was beautiful and heartbreaking and brutal, sometimes in the same breath. The importance of radios was also integral to the story, as – even without the ability to see due to blindness or ambient darkness – the radio allowed the characters to not feel so alone and to communicate, often under the radar.
Marie-Laure: A Perpetual Child
At first I had high hopes for Doerr’s character of Marie-Laure. Her father, after the shock of her blindness sets in, builds a tactile map of their neighborhood in Paris (and later Saint-Malo), forcing her to memorize it and use it to help her navigate her way around. His intentions are laudable, even though a piece of me cringes at the painstaking lengths he went to to make it happen. The ideas about blindness in the 1930s and 1940s are unknown to me. Other reviewers have been frustrated by her counting of storm drains to navigate, but who am I to judge this? Perhaps my way of navigating the world would seem odd and juvenile to those who will come along in seventy years. But in some important and damaging ways, Doerr does not allow Marie-Laure to grow up normal. She has no friends to speak of, she appears incapable of dressing herself even as a teenager, and the adults in her life tell her what she can and can’t do and where she can travel alone. before her father leaves, he washes his 12-year-old daughter’s hair, something that can be seen as tender, inappropriate and/or patronizing, depending on your viewpoint. When Marie-Laure asks questions, they are asked in the way an impish, precocious child would ask them. Maybe the war made those around Marie-Laure more protective than they otherwise would have been, maybe not. But I do think that Doerr could have made Marie-Laure a more complex character during that war than a young girl in a teenager’s body, maybe one who still loved the sea but also helped to care for herself and those around her.
I must also interject here that the image of Marie-Laure as a capable, independent thinker is much more pronounced toward the end of the book. Even so, it was largely because she had to be, making life choices when bombs were falling around her home, not because she chose that path for herself. Her post-War life is only referenced at the very end of the book. But by the time the reader gets to that point the image of a charming, docile girl is foremost in their mind.
Werner: A Man Too Young
From the first time Werner and his sister listened to a radio they found, deep into the night, at the children’s home, I was glued to their story. Werner is a young man who grows up with nothing, living with his sister in (effectively) an orphanage in a mining town in Germany. He is book-smart, good with numbers and formulas and mechanical things, thus earning himself a place at a school for Hitler Youth. His sister is back at the children’s home, young and naive in some ways, wise beyond her years in others. Werner is not a brutal man and seems powerless to stop what goes on at the school and later on the battlefield, where it’s his job to locate clandestine radio transmissions throughout Europe. The Hitler Youth school tries to break the goodness out of him, and somehow it succeeds in making him unwilling to speak up, and yet at his core he is a decent man-child. He cannot understand the brutality, in small ways tries to avoid it, but a deadly mistake truly costs him his innocence. Such passages are hard to read, and yet necessary to his development as a complex character. When he meets Marie-Laure, it’s his chance at redemption…
I don’t regret reading this book. Maybe I read it in spite or of because of the overwhelmingly positive or negative reviews. Mr. Doerr is certainly an author to watch. His depictions of Werner’s life – both before and during World War II) were engrossing and believable. While I wish he would’ve portrayed Marie-Laure (and the actions of those around her) differently, it only slightly took away from my enjoyment of the book. If Marie-Laure’s post-War life had been more well-represented than the last handful of pages – an independent woman with a career, a sexuality, a family – it would’ve made her father’s and uncle’s protection of her (war-time or not) easier to swallow.
4/5 stars (3 if it were audio).