Still, I put off reading the book all year while it became a finalist for the National Book Award; a #1 New York Times bestseller; was named a best book of the year by the New York Times Book Review, Powell’s Books, Barnes & Noble, NPR’s Fresh Air, Entertainment Weekly, the Washington Post, Seattle Times and the Guardian, just to name a few.
I feared a tragic ending, after all, it’s a war story. I finally overcame my trepidation, and now I highly recommend the book. It touches on all the grand themes of life that we struggle to understand.
It’s the story Marie-Laure, blind from the age of 6 who lives with her father in Paris, where he is a locksmith at the Museum of Natural History. The museum is her second home as she grows up, learning the mysteries and beauty of nature through her fingertips. She was particularly fascinated by one professors collection of shells.
Intertwined with the girls’ story is that of a German orphan boy Werner, incredibly bright, but trapped in a mining town that produces raw materials for the Nazi war machine. Werner is 8-years-old when he discovers a rudimentary radio in a junk heap. For three patient weeks, he studies it and works on it until he gets it to work.
Open your eyes...
see what you can
before they close forever
Open your eyes, concluded the man, and see what you can with them before they close forever, and then a piano comes on, playing a lonely song that sounds to Werner like a golden boat traveling a dark river, a progression of harmonies that transfigures Zollverein: the houses turned to mist, the mines filled in, the smokestacks fallen, an ancient sea spilling through the streets, and the air streaming with possibility.
It is these tenuous radio waves that eventually connect Marie-Laure and Werner, though it is years later when she is a 16-year-old working with the French Resistance and he is a soldier in the German Army using his gift for math to root out illegal radio transmitters.
The brain is locked in total darkness of course, children, says the voice. It floats in a clear liquid inside the skull, never in the light. And yet the world it constructs in the mind is full of light. It brims with color and movement. So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?
It’s a reference first and foremost to all the light we literally cannot see: that is, the wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum that are beyond the ability of human eyes to detect (radio waves, of course, being the most relevant). It’s also a metaphorical suggestion that there are countless invisible stories still buried within World War II — that stories of ordinary children, for example, are a kind of light we do not typically see. Ultimately, the title is intended as a suggestion that we spend too much time focused on only a small slice of the spectrum of possibility. - from Doerr’s site
So, yes, it ends as a war story often ends, but the read is worth it. I recommend it to older teens as well as adults. The relationship between Marie-Laure and her father, and that which she develops with her great-uncle Etienne are transformative and the book is worth reading for them alone, but there is so much more that is difficult to put into words. The intricate structure crafts myriad threads together, a haunting and spectacular weaving of the highest and lowest of human nature.
Have you read it? What do you think?
With much thanks to Aria Antiques, Curious Expeditions, San Fransisco, CA