The BUZZ: Anthony Doerr is an acclaimed novelist and short story writer; this novel, published in May, quickly became a New York Times bestseller.
The GIST: Two parallel stories intersect in this gripping story of World War II. Marie-Laure grows up in Paris with her father, who works at the Museum of Natural History. She goes blind at six-years-old, and her father patiently teaches her about her universe through touch and smell and sound. When the Nazis invade France, the two escape to the walled city of Saint-Malo.
A world away, in Germany, Werner is being raised with his sister in an orphanage in a bleak mining town. They chance upon an old radio and, with Werner’s ingenuity, are able to use it to learn about music and stories far beyond their grim neighborhood. Werner’s technical skills make him a valuable asset to the Hitler Youth movement, and he spends the war tracking down and eliminating insurgents. Ultimately, his search-and-destroy mission brings him to Saint-Malo, to Marie-Laure, and to a fateful decision.
The WRITING: Dazzling. Doerr is an exceptional writer, able to deliver beauty or heartbreak in a minimum of words (e.g., “shoals of clouds swim through the sky” or “time is a glowing puddle you carry in your hands”); his style is impeccable. I felt almost breathless at times, worried as I was about both of the main characters – poor, blind Marie-Laure who is capable beyond measure, and poor, misguided Werner who…well, I’ll leave it to you to find out if he is as courageous as she is. The story itself is told well: layer upon layer building toward the climax, superb characters, a flawless sense of place and space and time, and a mystery that runs throughout.
BUY or BORROW?: Buy. This is a captivating tale that deserves a second read for the writing alone. It is deeply moving and, though set in WWII, essentially about love and kindness, not war and hate. If you don’t normally read historical fiction, I highly recommend this novel as a way to ease in.
Fireflies floated away from them, illuming on and off, always seeming to rise just beyond their reach, as if the earth were smoldering and these were sparks that their footfalls had prodded free.