This book kept popping up on my recommended feeds all over the place. Then it even showed up as an answer to a crossword puzzle I happened to be doing last week. I figured that I’d seen enough signs, it was time to check it out. I love my library, they have an ever expanding selection of e-books and I was able to get this one within a day of requesting it. If you’re either broke or no longer allowed to buy anymore e-books, check out your local library and see if they have options available to check out e-books. I’ve found that many of them are now offering this service and some are even letting people check out e-readers. But I digress…back to the review!
I’m a sucker for historical novels and I’ve always been extremely interested in all things WWII. So I can see why this book kept popping up on my recommendation pages. I hadn’t known that this book had won the Pulitzer Prize until I was about halfway through. And I can definitely understand why he won the award. Anthony Doerr has put together a novel that keeps a frenetic pace and constantly goes back and forth both between points of view and also in time. But it works. Instead of being something disjointed and hard to follow, it fits with the time. How many people’s lives became disjointed and frantic? I will admit that in the very beginning, it was a bit jarring to go back and forth between two stories that didn’t seem to be connected in any way. I will say that if you can keep going, you will be richly rewarded.
We meet Marie-Laure in Paris when she’s a young child. Before the age of 7 she is completely blind and dependent on her only remaining parent, her Papa. He is the master of keys at the Museum of Natural History, handing out keys to everyone while his daughter learns everything she can by feeling the shells, the plants and insects and everything else within the museum. She talks to everyone and questions everything. He builds for her a model of their neighborhood and over the years she begins to find her independence and can lead them home from anywhere simply by remembering the model and using her senses to determine where she is.
We also meet Werner an orphan in German mining town. He lives in an orphanage with his younger sister, Jutta. He has an exceptional mind for numbers and engineering. He also questions everything from why is the sky blue to why do cats meow. One day while they are out searching for food and junk they can sell, Werner and his sister find a broken radio. Within the day, he has the radio fixed and they are listening to music. Soon they are hearing broadcasts from France. They hear a grandfatherly voice telling stories and playing music. His skills are soon spread through the community and he’s sent to the academy for Hitler Youth to become an instrument of the Reich.
Both Marie-Laure and Werner are caught up in the war as it rolls through. We follow Marie-Laure and her Papa in their flight from Paris to the home of his “crazy uncle” Etienne in Saint-Malo, a walled citadel by the sea where he lives with his housekeeper. In a strange new home she once again learns how to navigate the world. Once again, her Papa builds a model of the town so she can find her way around. But with one secret, there’s something hidden inside the model of their tall house by the sea. A gemstone that some say is cursed. One that tends to bring out the wrong type of seeker.
Saint-Malo is where Werner and Marie-Laure’s stories become entwined. During an Allied bombing run that was designed to flush out the German army entrenched there and free the civilian populace. Werner learns the human cost of his intelligence and Marie-Laure learns just how strong she really is.
The images that are invoked by Anthony Doerr’s writing are simply amazing. You can feel the shells, see the destruction, smell the smoke. You can feel the frustration of the civilians in Saint-Malo as well as the apathy presented by the young soldiers of the Reich. This was simply one of the most breathtaking novels I’ve read this year. It started with a slow build, through the early years of their lives and then you’re rushing headlong into the waning days of the war and beyond. It was almost a frenetic race to the finish that left you breathless but wanting more. I can see why he won the Pulitzer Prize for this novel. Definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year and if you follow me…you know that’s saying something!