Summary (Amazon): From the highly acclaimed, multiple award-winning Anthony Doerr, the beautiful, stunningly ambitious instant New York Times bestseller about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.
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 twelve, 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 Marie-Laure’s converge.
My Review (Spoilers!!)
Executive Summary: Almost
I probably started out this book with a bit of a pessimistic attitude because I just do not like WW2 books (specifically the European ones. I thoroughly enjoyed Unbroken because westerners rarely hear stories about WW2 Asia.) Anyway, the story is about an orphaned German boy and a blind French girl. So I was like…OK maybe this will be different. And in some parts it was, but in many ways, it wasn’t. Also, this was actually 5 stories confusingly woven into one. 1) Past tense Marie-Laure, 2)past tense Werner, 3) “current” (1944) time Marie-Laure and 4) “current” (1944) time Werner. 5) Sergeant Major von Rumpel’s obsession with finding the “Sea of Flames”. I’m going to tell Marie’s story, Werner’s story, how von Rumpel fits in, and then what happens when they finally meet.
Marie-Laure, the blind French girl, lives with her father, who is a museum locksmith, in Paris. (Her mother died in childbirth.) Her father is amazing and takes her to work with him where she learns about everything the museum has to offer. One of the things that the museum has is the “Sea of Flames”, a large blue diamond with red at the inside. It is kept in a series of locked doors as the diamond is known to be cursed. It gives the owner immortality but not without great despair. Marie-Laure’s father also makes her wooden puzzles as well as scale models of her neighborhood so that she can learn the paths before actually going outside and taking them.
When the Nazis invade Paris, Marie-Laure and her father flee Paris to head to the town of Saint-Malo (via way of Evreux which was already attacked and looted) to live with her great uncle Etienne who is a recluse and his housekeeper, Madame Manec. Marie-Laure doesn’t know but her father and 3 others are entrusted to take the “Sea of Flames” and hide it away from the Nazis. (3 of the diamonds are fake, but one is the real deal). Shortly after her father finishes his scale model of the region of Saint-Malo, he is called back to Paris to the museum and is taken in by the Nazis en route and taken to prison. He manages to eventually write Marie-Laure and Etienne some letters, one of which says that there is a a gift inside Etienne’s house just like she would get on her birthdays–a puzzle and inside a gift. Despite it being very obvious that the house is the model house, she has no idea what her dad is talking about and just ignores it.
Meanwhile, she is getting to know Etienne much better. He loves learning, music, and radios. His brother, Marie’s grandfather, used to record science programs that Etienne would transmit with his radio. When the Nazis take all the radios, they give up all but that one which they hide in a hidden closet and cover with a wardrobe. Manec has begun to help the resistance with some other town ladies in little ways. She involves Marie who meets some interesting people through this including Madame Ruelle who bakes secret messages into bread, and Harold Bazin, who has a secret hideout full of snails, which Marie loves. One day, Manec grows sick and dies. Yes, that suddenly. It convinces Etienne that he needs to try being brave so he begins sending out the secret codes that are baked into the bread through his radio, and when Marie-Laure one day is stopped by a Nazi soldier on the way home from the bakery, he finally convinces himself to leave the house to find her, and he then takes over the route for her until he disappears.
Werner Pfennig and his sister Jutta live in an orphanage in Zollverein, Germany. Werner’s father was a miner who died in a mining accident, and he’s always been interested in science. He and his sister scavenge old pieces of equipment and eventually cobble together a radio (the orphanage doesn’t have one) and listen to a science broadcast every night. Werner begins repairing radios for the townspeople until eventually he repairs one for a rich German man who helps Werner get accepted into a Nazi youth military school. Jutta does not want him to go (she has been listening to the radio and thinks the Nazis are wrong), but he doesn’t really care, and he breaks her radio and goes to the school. He makes friends with a quiet boy named Frederick who joined because his father wanted him to (his vision was poor enough that he could have gotten out of it but he didn’t want to be a disappointment). The Nazi fervor grows and grows at the school, and Werner seems to evade some of it as he is the special pupil to the technical sciences’ professor. However, Frederick does not evade it, and after a few run ins with one of the training officers, he is attacked by some other students and taken from the school in a vegetable state. Werner, for the most part, is unfazed and continues with his job.
Eventually he gets put on a task force with this older student, Volkheimer, and some others to travel around finding people from the resistance transmitting anti-German things on the radio and destroy them. They travel around finding all sorts of “resistance” who they then kill. Werner remains fully unfazed about all of this until they accidentally kill a child who reminds him of Jutta. When they head to Saint-Malo to find a radio that has been sending out codes, Werner pretends he can’t find them.
Throughout all of this, Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel has been appraising all the treasure that the Nazis have been looting. He’s an esteemed gemologist, and he also has cancer. He has heard about the “Sea of Flames” and its capability of eternal life. He interrogates the museum about it and eventually tracks down the person who made the mould for the fakes who tells him that 3 were made. Methodically, he finds the keepers of 3/4, and of course, the last one to find is Marie-Laure’s, and he tracks her down to Saint-Malo.
Marie-Laure is home alone when she hears someone enter the house. It’s not Etienne though she doesn’t know where he is, so she knows it is someone looking for the “Sea of Flames” which she finally figured out was in the model house. She hides in the radio room with the box hoping that von Rumpel will leave, but as hers is the last one and he is running out of time, he has no reason to leave without the stone. She begins to do radio broadcasts of her reading Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea which Werner overhears on his scans. He targets her because he is fascinated, but then he and his team end up under the rubble after an attack from the Allied forces. When he hears her broadcast, “He is here. He will kill me.”, he makes a final desperate attempt to escape. It works, and he goes to her house where he finds and kills von Rumpel and rescues her.
He asks her about the transmitter and tells her about the radio show that he used to listen to with his sister from that same transmission. She tells him that it was her grandfather, and they discuss Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea while eating the last can of peaches. He wears Etienne’s clothes to take her to safety, but she stops at the snail cave to deposit the house with the stone, and then goes to the muster point, giving Werner the key to the cave before she goes.
Werner is captured and believed to be a spy. He is taken to prison and is killed stepping onto a buried mine. Yes, just that fast.
Then the author decides to go to 2 separate “modern times” to try to continue the story, but it adds nothing. In the 1970s, Volkheimer receives Werner’s things from the army and tracks down Jutta to give them to her. He tells Jutta about their last days together in Saint-Malo. One of the items in his pack is part of a model house. Jutta decides to track down the owner of the house, first traveling to Saint-Malo where of course someone knows exactly where to find Marie-Laure 30 years later. She works in the museum. Jutta tracks her down and gives her back the house. Marie-Laure gives her the last of the records her grandfather recorded for Jutta’s son. When Marie opens the house, the key to the cave is inside, so she believes that Werner went back to retrieve the house but leave the diamond. Why?
Then again the author decides we care about old lady Marie-Laure hanging out with her grandson in the early 2000s just to show she made it.
Verdict: 3 stars
The book was just not come together in a way that was enjoyable for me. It was a good idea, but it just never was fully realized. In fact, without the two 2.5 hour flights I took, I am not sure I would have finished it. I didn’t enjoy the style of jumping back and forth between the stories. I didn’t like the extreme amount of closure that the author thought that the readers needed. Leave a little to the imagination. But the worst part was that I didn’t like the characters. They were so blah. Werner was a little sheep that somehow we were supposed to care about. And Marie-Laure never seemed to evolve to have her own ideas. I just wanted more.