This book was dangerously over-hyped for me. When I start to hear over and over again how great a book is (or anything really) my stubborn heels begin to dig in and I am ready to dislike it. Which is a silly reaction, I know, but a difficult habit to shake. Fortunately, I still enjoyed this book. I didn’t find it amazing or over-the-top good but it was solid, readable, and provoked some thought.
The story alternates between characters, times, and locations and Doerr handles each well. Our main characters are Marie-Laure. French, growing up in Paris with her father, blind at a young age. While blindness narrows Marie-Laure’s boundaries, her life is full. She learns constantly about the world around her, especially through her father’s museum work and his building of a model of their neighbourhood.
Parallel to Marie-Laure we have Werner, growing up in a children’s home in Germany. Smart and fascinated by technology and science in general and radios in particular, Werner’s future is laid out for him. When he turns fifteen, he will go to work in the mines.
Did I mention that the book begins in the 1930s? You can see where this is going, right?
Marie-Laure and her father flee Paris for the relative safety of St. Malo and the home of her great-uncle Etienne. Werner’s intelligence takes him to a military academy and then into the army. Both teenagers now, their paths grow ever closer together. That said, the ultimate connection between these two did turn out in an unexpected manner and I was pleased that Doerr went in a slightly different direction.
The details of this story are great. There’s a lot of tactile description, which of course fits well with a blind character. The author does a good job of creating a different feel in Marie-Laure’s and Werner’s childhoods, moving between an industrial German mining town and the gardens of Paris and then the seaside town of St. Malo.
Where I hesitate with this novel is Werner’s story line. Without giving too much away, do we need redemption stories for Nazi soldiers? From what I know of 20th century history, a story like Werner’s is not uncommon; a young man swept up in the pressures and fears and opportunities of Nazi Germany. Someone who doesn’t necessarily hate or desire conquest but doesn’t do anything to stop it or stand against it. It’s a tragedy of human nature that this is a common story. That this is too often our reaction to evil and wrongdoing. My question is, Do these stories need a defense? Does it make it better if that person grew up poor and an orphan and the military was maybe an escape from life and death in the mines? If they did at least one good act, does it cancel out the deaths they were responsible for? The deaths they witnessed and did nothing to prevent? Which is the story that will ultimately be told about their life? In this novel, the answer is the nicer version. In the end, the story told of Werner’s life is a good one. Not happy exactly but certainly the reader wants to root for him. And it was there that I struggled because for most of the novel Werner doesn’t do anything particularly evil but he doesn’t do anything to stand up against evil – something the novel draws to our attention by juxtaposing him against other characters who do. While I think that it was excellent to provide that contrast, it also made me not want to root for Werner because I didn’t want to root for a Nazi soldier, and I don’t think that was where Doerr intended my feelings to fall. Part of this is that Nazism remains a synonym for evil in our culture and common history and I’m not really interested in hearing about the nuanced morality of Nazis. Obviously this is a question larger than this novel and this plot and I found it an interesting one to consider. After all, a mark of a good read is one that you’re still thinking about days later.