Frenchman Claude LeBlanc works at the Museum of Natural history when Paris is invaded by the Germans. He flees with his daughter, Marie-Laure, to Saint-Malo where his uncle lives. Claude has been given one of four famous diamonds for safekeeping. Three of the diamonds are fakes and one real. The diamond is cursed and all that come in contact with it suffer great tragedy, but live forever. Marie-Laure became blind as a six-year-old and is learning to navigate the world without sight. Her father teaches her to read Braille and she adores Jules Verne's, "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea."
Meanwhile German teen, Werner Pfennig, lives in an orphanage with his sister after his dad died in a coal mine collapse and his mother died in childbirth. He is getting older and knows that his only career option will be to work in the mines. He is brilliant at math, engineering, and mechanics. When the neighbors discover he can fix any radio they bring him, he has steady work until a German shows up that recruits him for Hitler's Youth program. Werner sees a way out of poverty and the mines and takes the offer to be trained at school as a mechanic and soldier, but is uneasy the whole time with incidents that happen. He sees the commander, Bastian, as a fanatic capable of chronic violence and "...every part of him wants to scream: is this not wrong? But here it is right."
When Marie-Laure's dad goes missing on a trip back to the museum, she gets to know her uncle better and the housekeeper. The three get drawn into the French Resistance that was working against the Germans. When Werner's radio skills draw the two together in Saint-Malo, Werner makes choices that are contrary to those he has been making throughout the war. Before he thinks he is controlling his future and doesn't realize his lack of actions is a choice. The twist with model house at the end shows he found strength to do the right thing.
The reader has to work more keeping track of the narrative because it jumps in time. The story is basically about a one week siege in Saint-Malo, France. If the author had written it in a linear form, then most of the story would have been in flashbacks that would have taken the suspense and tension out of most of the plot development. I am not a fan of flashbacks and heavy backstory so I appreciate this experimental approach to narrative. It is risky and might irritate some, but my random brain kind of liked it once I got used to it. It reminded me of the hours I would spend putting puzzles together and I appreciated how cleverly the author put various time frames together to create suspense.
The prose and figurative language Doerr uses remind me a bit of some Romantic writers. He describes nature through his characters with such awe and beauty that I can smell the ocean and feel the wind in a grotto filled with mollusks and crustaceans. His sentences have a lyrical cadence that is like music. The writing can be dense too. When Werner describes radio technology, it is technical enough to remind me of Jules Verne's books. The 187 short one to three-page chapters balance these excessive descriptions so it isn't exhausting. The metaphors on light are so many and varied I could write an entire paper on them. The title reflects the light or darkness that is in nature, humans, man-made machines, blindness, buildings, to name a few. The author shows how the theme of good and evil or light and darkness in humans is complicated and far from black and white.
Werner's actions are good and harmful. Jutta and Frederick are his conscience and he fails both of them with the poor decisions he makes. But he is a character whose actions are not to take action so he isn't offensive or cruel. He just stands by and follows others; whereas, Jutta and Frederick stand up against people doing things that they believe are morally wrong. Werner wants so bad to break out of his poverty and not end up in the mines that he compromises his morals. When his story becomes wrapped up with Marie-Laure's he has found a measure of redemption from past inactions; from breaking Jutta's radio in rebellion to the law, to not standing up for Frederick, for not doing something when the terrified boy on the platform fainted, to murdering people as a soldier.
Werner is a complex character. The reader understands his desperation to get out of the orphanage and not die in the coal mines. When he figures out the location of transmitting radios, readers are rooting for him, but the result of his success is the murder of enemies. When Werner is at Hitler's Youth School the contrast between Nazi propaganda and nature becomes even more evident. The Nazi's tried to use the science of eugenics to control evolution. The thought of humans directing evolution in a controlled manner is in direct contrast to the disorder and messiness of nature. And its racist element is horribly off-kilter with the theme of tolerance.
Marie-Laure is more pure in character. She's brave and finds herself all alone in the war. She needs the strength to face a killer and the world on her own. Von Rumpel is more of a stock villain but even he has another reason to find the stone that has nothing to do with money but to do with his disease. He's a foil to Werner and adds great tension at the end as he hunts down Marie-Laure. Werner's actions are in response to the guilt he feels for not rescuing Frederick when he was being persecuted and abused by others. Marie-Laure needs to know that she can stand on her own even though she is blind. Even though she is blind she represents light in the goodness she shows others. She is an interesting character because the author has to describe her experiences through other senses. Most writers use narratives that rely on visual senses and Marie-Laure relies on touch, taste, and smell to visualize the world.
One of the themes is how war affects idealists. Frederick is sensitive and is not always skilled socially, but he is kind and smart and a dreamer. "He sees things what other people don't." But he comes off as odd and nerdy. Even when things escalate with school bullies, he doesn't leave as Werner suggests. As the cruelty gets worse, Frederick seems to withdraw into his world of birds. When Werner tells him to just leave, Frederick says he has no choice because being at the school helps his dad and mom politically. At the end, when Jutta is looking at Werner's notebook full of questions and pictures of birds for Frederick she thinks, "What the war did to dreamers." Both boys lost their dreams to the war.
The ending is kind of different. It has Marie-Laure as an old woman with her grandchildren. It shows how the war doesn't exist for the next generation like it did for her because they have not had to live through one. The author seems to be making the point that the memory of the war can easily be forgotten and the same mistakes made. But there are still wars today. There is still destruction and groups committing genocide world-wide. By showing Marie-Laure remembering her experiences, the author suggests that through books others can learn and avoid mistakes that lead to intolerance and war.