This is one of those rare books that the reader knows is a classic while reading it. Anthony Doerr’s brilliant 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel centers on the parallel plights of a blind French girl, Marie-Laure LeBlanc, and a young German soldier, Werner Pfennig, during World War II. Marie-Laure’s devoted father is a locksmith who is in charge of the locks at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. There, he is involved in an elaborate scheme to hide a precious rare blue diamond from the Nazis at the outset of the war.
Marie-Laure’s father is consumed with protecting her. To ensure she can navigate her surroundings, he builds a scale model of the Paris neighborhood where they live. When the war forces the family to move to the Breton coastal town of Saint-Malo, her father builds a scale model of Marie-Laure’s new surroundings.
Doerr’s vivid writing appeals to all the senses, especially the scenes written from Marie-Laure’s point-of-view. While Marie-Laure’s upbringing in Paris and the coastal town during the early year of the war is comfortable, Pfennig’s childhood is bleak. After his father dies in a coal mining accident, Werner and his sister, Jutta, grow up in an orphanage. He faces a bleak future working in the coal mines until a Nazi officer discovers he has a talent for fixing radios. He is assigned to an elite military training academy where he witnesses first hand the cruelty of the Nazi regime. He watches helplessly as a shy friend who refuses to take part in a ritual of torture is tormented. Later, Werner finds out his friend was beaten senseless.
After relocating to Saint-Malo, Marie-Laure’s father disappears after boarding a train to carry out a mission for the museum. As the war rages on, living in Nazi-occupied Saint-Malo becomes increasingly dangerous, yet Marie-Laure’s uncle, Etienne, enlists her in a plan to send messages to the resistance over a short wave radio hidden in the attic of their six story home.
Werner’s talents find him in a Nazi unit that traverses the countryside looking for radios used by the enemies to transmit vital information. In one scene in Austria, Werner’s fellow soliders, searching for a hidden radio, execute a young mother and her seven year old daughter, who was hiding in a closet, an act that haunts Werner.
When the allies bomb Saint-Malo, Marie-Laure makes a discovery about where the blue diamond is hidden. Not far away, Werner and two fellow soldiers are trapped under the rubble of a grand hotel where they have been encamped.
The story’s strength lies in the choices the characters make and the impossible moral dilemmas they encounter in desperate situations. The light in the title is manifested by the irrepressible spirit and determination of characters like Marie-Laure, her uncle, and even Werner, to carry on in the face of the darkness of war and destruction. There are supreme sacrifices and astounding acts of love that take place within a brutal setting. Doerr’s skill at bringing a fresh perspective to a period of history that has been written about perhaps more than any other is a testimony to his vast talent.