The City of Saint-Malo
It begins in the moments before the city of San-Malo is destroyed by American Bombers during WWII. The city comes alive as if it has its own point of view. The impending tragedy feels ominous.
Marie-Laure, the girl that gradually lost her sight when she was a child, is in the city of Saint-Malo. She is sixteen, completely blind, and unaware of the destruction that is on its way.
Blocks away, 18 year old Werner Pfennig finds shelter in the cellar of the Austrian base located in L'hôtel des Abeilles. Werner is a genius with radio transmissions, and was recruited by the Reicht for his intelligence, but there's nothing he can do to save himself from the impending disaster.
The novel is broken up into different parts and chapters. Each "Part" is a date, and the different chapters reflect the points of view of different main and secondary characters.
Marie-Laure LeBlanc is curious, clever, and full of heart. Having lost her mother at an early age she is entirely reliant upon her father, Monsieur LeBlanc, a locksmith for the Natural History Museum in Paris, when she loses her sight to cataracts at a young age. She is exceedingly curious and is fascinated with the ocean and the creatures that live in it.
Monsieur LeBlanc does everything he can to take care of his daughter, including carving a "to-scale" model of their neighborhood, and then a model of Saint-Malo when they flee Paris. He is entrusted by the Museum director to secure a stone that may or may not be the cursed "Sea of Flames", a pear shaped diamond that is blue on the outside with red flames at the heart.
Werner Pfennig is an orphan along with his younger sister Jutta. They live in the Children's Home in Zollverein, a coal mining town where Werner's father died. As it is a working town, every boy in the town is fated to work in the mines regardless of intelligence, so when Werner gets an opportunity to go down a different path, he enthusiastically pursues the opportunity.
Etienne LeBlanc, Marie-Laure's great uncle, is a veteran suffering from PTSD from the first World War. Intensely devastated by the loss of his brother, Etienne alternates between obsessing over radio broadcasts and hiding from the ghosts that haunt him.
Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel is a treasure hunter for the Reicht. He believes in the story of the "Sea of Flames" diamond, that it allows the owner to live forever but the people they love most will die. He believes the diamond will save him from his own crippling disease.
Madame Manec has been taking care of Etienne LeBlanc his whole life. She skillfully manages to inspire La Résistance in Saint-Malo after the Austrians begin their occupation while simultaneously taking care of Etienne and Marie-Laure.
The story follows a young blind girl, Marie-Laure, and her father in the years before WWII. Gradually as she gets older, the war becomes inevitable and finds its way into France where the girl and her father live, and they flee with her father entrusted with a diamond that could be the fated "Sea of Flames", or a replica that the museum director where he works as a locksmith had created as a decoy. Eager to find a safe place to stay, they flee to his uncle's house where Marie-Laure is not allowed outside and her father eagerly carves the city of Saint-Malo's streets for Marie-Laure to study.
Meanwhile, Werner Pfennig lives in the Children's Home with his sister Jutta after they are orphaned. He finds a broken radio while they are roaming around the town together and Werner repairs it. He discovers he has a talent for understanding electronics and becomes known around town for his abilities. This opens the door for Werner to escape a life of working in the coal mines, but finds himself in an increasingly dangerous situation in one of Hitler's youth schools where anything foreign or unique about a person meant ostracization and violence.
The two paths inevitably collide while every person around them are fighting their own battles during the war. The war is an inescapable rip tide that devours innocent and guilty alike, without discerning what sort of damage is caused along the way.
Anthony Doerr does an incredible job of developing the characters in this book. You feel emotionally invested into their fate as you are submerged into different timelines and events, weaving through the characters' lives like a radio wave bounces off of towers and into the homes of unsuspecting people only to find answers to questions you haven't even asked yet. As you watch the kids grow up you realize the intensity of choosing between right and wrong, and the weight of when that choice is taken away from you.
This book gives you a glimpse of what it was like for the German people during WWII, caught up in the avalanche that was the Reicht, and the devastation for the people that came afterward.
It's easy to see why this novel received the Pulitzer Prize. The best stories are the ones that stay with you, and this one is haunting in the best possible way.