This was one of those books that I picked up on a whim in the reading room downstairs while I was waiting on some library loans. “Pulitzer Prize,” I thought. “This will probably not suck.” And it definitely doesn’t suck. But it did take me nearly a month to read, and for a 530-page work of fiction — a pageturner it was not, at least for me.
The setup: Two teenagers, Marie-Laure LeBlanc and Werner Pfennig, come of age in 1930s France and Germany respectively. Marie-Laure grows up in Paris with her father. Werner grows up in an orphanage with his sister in the Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex near Essen, which is exactly as bleak as it sounds. Marie-Laure shows an early interest in mollusks. Werner has a precocious talent for radios. Then history comes knocking for everyone in 1939.
Most of this novel’s stationary plot takes place in Saint-Malo, a smallish town on the coast of Brittany. It’s a beautiful old place with a ton of history, so you could do worse than looking more into it just on principal. Marie-Laure and her father escape to Saint-Malo to stay with her great uncle Etienne after Paris falls to the Nazis, and she remains there through most of the rest of the book. Werner’s story, being that of an able-bodied German male during World War II, ranges from his military school to the eastern and western fronts.
Basically you know at the outset that these two characters will eventually meet up. They’re in the same city at the beginning of the book, five streets apart, as the Americans begin bombing Saint-Malo in August 1944. But the book’s overall narrative structure is a big part of what made reading it so tedious. There are thirteen “parts” to this book, and each part contains several “chapters.” We switch between Marie-Laure and Walter with each change in the chapter, which makes sense. But each part is a different time — Part Zero is August 7, 1944. Part One is 1934. Part Two is August 8, 1944. Part Three is June 1940. Part Four is August 8, 1944 again.
So we’re not only shuttling back and forth each chapter between stories, but we’re shuttling back and forth each part between timelines. And then a third protagonist is introduced midway through the book and we start getting his stories inserted in every few chapters as well. This setup was not particularly necessary. It didn’t heighten any immediacy or make me feel any particular way about any of the characters. The story could have been just as well told had it been linear. Maybe set it up with Part Zero and the impending bombing and then start at 1934 and just tell it from there. As it was, the consistent time hopping felt like it had been tacked on and it was trying to accomplish something it wasn’t doing.
My other issue was with the main characters. You can’t really help but like both Marie-Laure and Werner, but they’re both also strangely unapproachable. For all the words written about both of them, I don’t know why either of them did or didn’t do many of the things in this book. They’re acted upon much more than they act, which doesn’t really make for compelling characters. And Von Rumpel, the third character, has a Motivating Force and literally no other character trait.
Some of the writing in here is really lovely. The descriptions of the scenery around Saint-Malo are beautiful, and there are some turns of phrase and lines that definitely evoke specific images. I would have loved a more linear book with more thought given to the characters. This feels like it could have been a really good YA book that got way too fiddly on its way to the Serious Reader section, which is a shame.