This sprawling novel tells the stories of two children growing up on opposite sides of World War II. Marie-Laure lives in Paris with her father, who is a locksmith working for the Museum of Natural History. She has been blind since the age of six, so her father has built a tiny replica of the city for her to memorize. But Marie-Laure is uprooted from these familiar surroundings when the Germans invade Paris and she has to flee to her great-uncle’s house on Saint-Malo. Meanwhile, Werner is a German orphan whose knack for fixing radios changes the course of his life. Instead of being doomed to a life of coal mining, he is chosen to attend a school where he will be trained as a Hitler Youth. Werner soon learns that the school is grueling and brutal, a place where weakness is mercilessly punished. But his desire to become a scientist, combined with fear for his own safety, keeps him silent. Werner’s story eventually converges with Marie-Laure’s in 1944, when the Germans are trying to hold Saint-Malo against an Allied invasion.
I was eager to read this novel after seeing several rave reviews, but unfortunately I have mixed feelings about it. I didn’t particularly like the novel’s structure, which constantly moves between Werner’s story and Marie-Laure’s, as well as jumping back and forth in time. Every time I got invested in one storyline, the book would jump to something else, which was frustrating. Also, there’s not a whole lot of plot in the book; it’s more a very detailed depiction of everyday life on both sides of WWII. That’s interesting in its own right, but I often became impatient with the meticulous descriptive language, especially when it came at the expense of the story. On the other hand, I’m very impressed with the character of Werner in this book. It’s easy (and justifiably so) to paint the Nazis as pure villains, but Werner manages to be a complex character whose motives are usually better than his actions. It helps that both he and Marie-Laure are children throughout most of the book, which makes them more sympathetic. Overall, I do think the novel is worth reading, but I’m glad I got it from the library rather than buying it.