Marie Laure lives with her father in Paris within walking distance of the Museum of Natural History where he works as the master of the locks (there are thousands of locks in the museum). When she is six, she goes blind, and her father builds her a model of their neighborhood, every house, every manhole, so she can memorize it with her fingers and navigate the real streets with her feet and cane. When the Germans occupy Paris, father and daughter flee to Saint-Malo on the Brittany coast, where Marie-Laure’s agoraphobic great uncle lives in a tall, narrow house by the sea wall.
In another world in Germany, an orphan boy, Werner, grows up with his younger sister, Jutta, both enchanted by a crude radio Werner finds. He becomes a master at building and fixing radios, a talent that wins him a place at an elite and brutal military academy and, ultimately, makes him a highly specialized tracker of the Resistance. Werner travels through the heart of Hitler Youth to the far-flung outskirts of Russia, and finally into Saint-Malo, where his path converges with Marie-Laure.
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2014 seems to be a year in which I am finally reading the “major” reads of the year in a somewhat timely manner. Or some of them, at least. I still have Donna Tart’s Goldfinch unread on my ereader from last year’s apparently lofty goal of doing the same thing. But that’s another post.
For me there are definite The Book Thief vibes about this book. And no, it’s not just because of the historical setting. Rather, it is written in such a way that gives the impression of the story not just being narrated in the traditional sense, but that the story is being told to you personally by someone who was right there with the characters; someone who saw what they saw and felt what they felt. This intimacy is magical and is something I have only ever experienced once before, when I read The Book Thief. I also like to think of this feeling of intimacy being mirrored in the Saint Marlo radio broadcasts.
The writing is so pretty and there is one amazingly beautiful chapter in which Werner and Marie Laure’s paths finally cross. The description of how Werner feels as he watches Marie Laure, outlined in silver, make her way through the streets without seeing him no matter how closely she passes by him was just lovely. As were the characters themselves. Alongside the picturesque setting of Saint Marlo, their obsessions with natural sciences and puzzles added a certain whimsy that buoyed the story throughout it’s darker moments.
Ultimately, I found very few flaws with this book. There were times when the ridiculously short chapters pulled me away from the story and other times when the third person/present tense view point felt odd, but the way these snippets of the characters’ lives were presented all came together to set the tone, and yes, that intimacy I keep rambling on about, of the book.