Do you ever find that it's difficult to review a book you really like? I don't read much contemporary literary fiction and I wasn't expecting to like this book. My cousin gave it to me for my birthday. At lunch with some of my family, everyone who'd read it, which was everyone at the table except for me, said they liked it. Now I know why.
Marie-Laure is a young French girl who has gone blind. Her father is the locksmith at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. He's responsible for tens of thousands of locks. Her mother is gone, so he takes Marie-Laure to the museum with him. There she learns about natural history, gems and shells being of particular interest. He also builds a miniature diorama of their neighborhood in Paris to help Marie-Laure learn how to get around the city. For her birthdays, he builds little houses with secret compartments to hold special birthday treats.
Meanwhile, in Germany, Werner and his sister Jutta are in an orphanage. Werner is forced to join Hitler's Youth. He's a wizard with radios, math, and electronics, but he's still forced to participate in the rigorous training / bullying of the army of children. He meets Frederick, a sensitive boy who loves birds and who is filled with wonder. The army is not a good place for either of them.
As the Germans invade Paris, Marie-Laure's father is given a stone which may be the famous and valuable gem called the Sea of Flames. There are four gems, one real and three fakes. He takes Marie-Laure to Saint-Malo, to the house of Marie-Laure's great uncle, Etienne. Etienne had been a hermit since the First World War, when he and his brother fought. His brother was killed. Etienne cannot bear the real world and never leaves his house. He sees ghosts.
Etienne's house is full of radios. He and his brother used to broadcast a science program for children. The Germans order everyone to turn in their radios. Etienne's family complies - except for the powerful radio built into the secret attic.
Werner and his unit are responsible for locating and destroying any unauthorized radios. Etienne has been broadcasting a list of numbers to the Allies. Saint-Malo, the beautiful old city by the sea, becomes a target for both the Germans and the Allies, bombed mercilessly.
Marie-Laure's father tries to get to Paris but is arrested and imprisoned. Etienne is taken prisoner, too. Marie-Laure is left alone in the house by the sea. A German officer is searching for the valuable gem that her father may have had. He shows up at the house and Marie-Laure hides.
There's so much beautiful detail in this book. Her father buys Marie-Laure books in Braille. She's reading Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. At one point, she begins to read the book aloud for broadcast.
In one of the strange twists that sometimes startle me, I was reading Twenty Thousand Leagues earlier this summer. It got put aside, not because it wasn't interesting, but because it just did. You know how that goes. Now I'm eager to finish it and read, or re-read, more Jules Verne.
At first, I was annoyed by the book because it jumps forward and backward in time. The chapters are short and alternate between Marie-Laure's story and Werner's, until they converge. As I got to know the characters and understood the trajectory of the story, I felt more comfortable. The time period covered is from just before World War II to 2014.
I have joined the ranks of the enchanted.