This book received a lot of possible attention, but it was the Fresh Air book critic, Maureen Corrigan, who finally convinced me to add this to my Audible cart.
I have to admit that I was not sold on this story right away. It took me several chapters to get sucked into the stories of Marie-Laure, whose father makes locks and puzzles and who helps her navigate their Paris when she loses her sight as a young girl, and Werner, who lives with his younger sister, Jutta, in an orphanage in Zollverein, where children are born to die in the mines that are driving the rebirth of Germany. Werner discovers his talent when he finds an old radio, restores it, and hears a French voice opening his mind to the glories of the universe. Doerr paints vivid scenes of Marie-Laure counting the storm drains as she taps her way from their apartment to the museum where her father works and of Werner and Jutta in their beds, quietly listening to the science broadcasts and desperately hoping for an alternative future that keeps Werner from dying in the mines like their father.
Things fall apart in 1939 Europe and Marie-Laure and her father flee Paris for Saint-Melo, the home of her great-uncle, Etienne, an agoraphobia victim of his losses in WWI. Marie-Laure’s father carries a famous diamond, whose bearer has eternal life, but whose loved ones are cursed. Werner’s fellow orphans join the Hitler Youth and Werner’s talents are noticed by a military commander, who paves the way for Werner to attend a special school for gifted boys, where he meets little Frederick, who has a gift for identifying birds from their songs.
Marie-Laure’s father is called back to the museum and ends up in a German work camp. Frederick becomes the target of the school’s bullies, prompted by their schoolmaster in the spirit of Nazi manhood and Werner is torn between his ambition and his conscience.
What makes this novel so intriguing? For me, Marie-Laure’s courage and Werner’s cowardice kept me going, but the whirlpool of events that inexorably draws them together pulled me in.
I was angry with the book’s ending. It’s war, but I wanted a happy ending. Doerr sets up a grand myth of fate and morals to drive the story forward, but his end suggests there is no morality, no pattern but chaos. What difference do the characters make? Why doesn’t Marie-Laure tell Jutta what Werner did for her? It’s not self-preservation; it’s mean and continues Jutta’s too-flat role as martyr. Why can there be no hope for Frederick, no glimmer from Werner’s gift? Even the cancer-ridden German officer goes unmourned as his wife eyes her next husband during a church service. These characters survive, but not much more. Some of my concerns were less selfish other than my dismay at seeing the wizard being the curtain. Marie-Laure’s grandson’s playing war on a game device as the prompt for her reflection about people leaving the world for whom the war is a memory seemed like it should have been left on the cut and paste clipboard for being too obvious, too first-novelish. Ultimately I enjoyed this book, but did not love this book. Marie-Laure and Werner will stay with me, but I will not treasure this book for its craft, as I have so many others. I disagree with Maureen Corrigan.