All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

For Marie- Laure, it all starts with the Sea of Flames and the legend behind it- of one rare blue teardrop diamond with a flare of red in the center, with the power of immortality to the owner at the price of a curse: ill fate to those dearest. It was a centuries old story that Marie-Laure wasn’t quite convinced was true, but she pondered the legend anyways, imagining what the diamond would look like- for not only was she blind, but the jewel was said to be held deep in a vault with thirteen doors. After all, her father, security and keeper of the keys at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris, France, worked in close proximity to the vault.

For Werner, it all starts with a copy of a popular mechanics magazine and a simple radio, listening to a broadcast from who knows where of a man teaching science. An orphan living with his sister, Jutta, at Children’s House (an orphanage), Werner was eager to understand the world around him, studying conduits and gears, magnets and electricity, and eventually becoming extremely talented at fashioning simple machines and fixing even the most complex radios. When a German officer has him repair his radio, Werner is inspired by his praise and decides to attend the National Political Institute of Education at Schulpforta, in an effort to make something of himself- to go far, do well.

What these two young children aren’t expecting is the start of World War II, and how quickly it would change their lives.

For Marie-Laure, she would flee with her father to Saint-Malo, having to learn the area through her father and his handcrafted wooden replica of the town by feel and sound. Her great-uncle Etienne, who fought in World War I and still battled his demons post-war, and his housekeeper, Madame Manec, took them in, eventually becoming Marie-Laure’s guardians when her father is caught and sent to a labor camp in Germany. Determined to aid the allied war effort, Madame, Marie-Laure, and even Etienne risk their lives running operations in code through the sound waves of Etienne’s radio.

For Werner, he would become one of Hitler’s Youth, learning the cold methodology of the Nazi SS organization. Though he witnessed the cruelty of the system, there didn’t seem to be a way to stand up against it- nor was he sure that he could. Attempting to keep his nose to the grindstone, he surprises one of his teachers with his quick ability to produce simple mechanics and electronics, and becomes a favorite of his instructor. Then, when Werner tries to level the favoritism playing field between himself and his peers, the instructor turns against him and enlists him. As a soldier in Hitler’s Army, he scans the radio waves for illicit transmitters, ones that could be aiding the allied war effort.

As the two plot lines connect, the pages seem to turn faster and faster as the reader learns what is to become of the now young adults. It’s a beautiful story, and the sensual visualizations (sight, sound, even tactile) that Doerr gives the reader through his two main characters is so realistic that it’s like you are there, witnessing everything for yourself. I also enjoyed reading about World War II from yet another point of view, in which the characters are affected by the war differently than some other novels I’ve read- though it still reads heavy because no matter who is talking about the subject matter, the subject is still about the one of the darkest times in our history. I should also mention that the chapters alternate by character and are very short, so though it is a 500+ page novel, it still reads rather quick.

Overall, I’d recommend All The Light We Cannot See, but I wasn’t as enamored with it as I thought I would be. It’s a good story, and if I found the book on one of my Goodwill hauls, I’d certainly pick it up, but I’m not rushing to the store for my own personal copy. I’m glad that I did read it though, and would say that those who recommended it to me were spot on in saying that I would enjoy it!

 

 

 

Advertisements

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

Another recommendation from my friend from the stacks at the local public library.

The Nightingale took me a little time to get hooked on the story- it starts off rather slow (in my opinion). We are introduced to an unnamed elderly (but not old, as she would put it) lady who is reflecting on her life, and she eventually winds her way up to the attic and pulls out a memory box. Within the box, she finds documents dating back to World War II- specifically, identification papers of a Juliette Gervaise.

Trapped in the memory, the reader is taken back to France, 1939. We are introduced to Vianne Mauriac, a school teacher, mother, wife. On a perfectly normal day, she learns that her husband, Antoine, is being drafted to fight for France against the Germans. She is upset but permissive, believing that the talk of war is exaggerated and that he would be returning home soon. Imagining life without Antoine by her side was too much to think about for Vianne- after all, he had been there for as long as she could remember, certainly longer than her father had. Dealing with her own abandonment issues was Vianne’s younger sister, Isabelle Rossignol. Rebelling against the traditional French-woman behavior, Isabelle ran away to home far too often, causing her to be expelled from many boarding schools. After the death of her mother, her father had abandoned them by dumping them at a boarding school. Where Vianne found Antoine and befriended a girl named Rachel, Isabelle was left behind, the forgotten little sister. Now as a rebellious young adult, Isabelle is running for another reason- to survive the storm of Germans coming to occupy Paris.

As the start of the war happens, Vianne and Isabelle can’t let go of the hurt from their past. With varying views on the German occupation, Isabelle decides to join the war effort by secretly aiding the Allies, and Vianne takes a more passive route, complying with billeting soldiers in her home and abiding the German command. As the war wages on, the two seem to lead separate lives. Vianne attempts to stay her ground, doing her best to protect her daughter Sophie from the damages of war, and her neighbors when she can, all the while trying to maintain hope that the war will end soon. Meanwhile, Isabelle is running risky operations to save downed Ally airmen, a crime punishable by death, under the noses of commanding German officers. It is only when their two worlds collide again that the sisters begin to realize that they must put aside their past and hope to have a chance at a future.

Hannah took about 100 pages to get me hooked, but when she did, the hook went straight to my heart. As you all know, I have a weakness for historical fiction, and in particular those surrounding WWII. My great-grandfather was a volunteer of the Red Cross and helped liberate concentration camps in Germany in 1944-1945. We found photos that he took during that time after he passed away… and they will haunt me forever. So when I read these fictional stories, I know there is a very similar non-fictional story out there. A biography, even. And it makes me incredibly hurt and amazed that mankind would do such horrible things to each other, and yet people survived, had a will to survive….

I  also wanted to note that while somewhere in the middle of this book, I kept thinking about another novel, Tatiana de Rosnay’s Sarah’s Key, about WWII from the French perspective. I kept mentally comparing the two, and for about 100 pages, I kept thinking that de Rosnay’s was a more gripping read… and then Hannah’s hook got into me. What I found most interesting was that de Rosnay actually worked with Hannah on this novel, a few years after her own came out. If you haven’t read it, I suggest you do so, and if you haven’t read The Nightingale, the same goes for it. Just be ready to grab a box of tissues.

“The Other Boleyn Girl” by Philippa Gregory

I think I’ve read this novel before- sometime back in high school, or maybe middle school- or perhaps I’ve just read so many Anne Boleyn novels that I have gotten them confused in my head. Either way, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this book, and couldn’t put it down. There is something about the Tudor era that just entices- the splendor, the drama, the danger. Since Henry VIII’s reign was such a turbulent time, I’ve been fascinated by the historical stories that take my imagination back to him and Anne Boleyn, his second wife. The 650 page novel took me a while to read due to my recently busy schedule, but once I picked it up, it was difficult to put down.

Gregory takes us back into time during the 1520’s under the rule of Henry VIII, through the eyes of Mary Boleyn, the younger sister of Anne Boleyn. Mary is a young courtier and recently married, living and serving the then Queen of England, Katherine. She has always been the obedient child, and when her uncle and father plot to move the family up in title and wealth, they command Mary to start attracting the King of England. Desperate for a son that seems impossible to receive from his wife, he seeks Mary’s company, and she becomes his mistress. Competitive sister Anne is full of charm and ambition, and though she claims to want what is best for the family name, she has a temper and jealous streak that says otherwise. While Mary is shut in birthing the king’s child, Anne is pushed by the family to keep the king’s attention from both his queen and any other pretty ladies in waiting. Then, while Mary is birthing the second child of the King- a son!-, Anne has stolen the King’s attention from his wife and from Mary. Pushed by Anne, the King seeks to dissolve his marriage with Queen Katherine, and seeks to take Anne for his new wife. In the reform of the reign, all hell breaks lose, and Mary, Anne, and their families find themselves caught in a tangle of manipulation and on the verge of treason. The Boleyn sisters learn that power can cost a life- sometimes others, sometimes your own.

If you aren’t already familiar with the Boleyn legacy, then Google “off with her head” and read. You’ll want to read  “The Other Boleyn Girl” to imagine the scandalous details.

 

 

“Sarah’s Key” by Tatiana de Rosnay

First off, although the main topic of this book is about a grim point in world history, I had a hard time putting this book down. I did not intend to start my year off with such a heavy subject, but when I pulled this book off the shelf and read the back cover, I wanted to know the whole story.

The first page introduces Sarah, a 10 year old Jewish girl living in Paris in July of 1942. She is awoken in the middle of the night by French officers under orders to round up Jewish families with children ages 2-12. Confused, she is lead away with her parents, leaving her little brother hidden in a cupboard under lock and key with the perception that they will return shortly. What unfolds is a first-count point of view of the Velodrome d’hiver, the Jewish round-up in Paris, France during the German occupation in World War II. The roundup sent over 4,000 children with their families to Auschwitz.

As Sarah’s story starts to unfold, we are transported 60 years ahead and introduced to Julia, an American-born journalist who lives in present-time Paris. She is given the assignment to research the Vel’ d’Hiv for it’s 60th anniversary, and the deeper she delves into the past, the more she uncovers about her own life. Although she has been living in Paris for 25 years, she struggles with being accepted as anything more than “L’Americaine”, The American. While researching about Paris’s dark past, she connects to the history that many Parisians blocked from memory.

Without giving too much away, Julia’s search into the horrific night of July 16, 1942 leads her to Sarah’s own story, and it changes everything. Julia’s family relationships shift, and she is left with many choices to make, moral and otherwise. Using her journalistic skills, she searches for answers until the final pages of the book, where the past is finally laid to rest. “Zakhor. Al Tichkah. Remember. Never Forget.”

I finished “Sarah’s Key” in 3 days, an almost 300 page book. It was hard to put it down once I started, and I’m lacking in sleep because of it. It’s worth the read, absolutely. However, there are two things that I wasn’t so fond of, just in general terms. First, the book starts with two different perspectives, written in two types of font with a header that lets you know the “chapter” or narrator had changed. This made sense; I liked how they weaved the story line. But about 150 pages in, the narration from Sarah stops (which is understandable in the story line), and becomes mostly just Julia’s point of view, yet it is still separated in these short little “chapters”. I feel it would have been easier to follow the train of her thoughts if it wasn’t so punctuated with these headers. The second thing that I wasn’t so fond of was the change in Julia’s narration. In the beginning, although she is questioning her own acceptance in Paris, she seems to be a determined woman with something to prove. But as the story unfolds, Julia loses the gumption and becomes less self confident, questioning herself repeatedly. As the reader, I felt like I got stuck in her train of self-doubt, which slowed down the fast pace of the book. In the author’s defense, maybe this was intentional and I’m just not scholarly enough to understand her literary tools, but as a member of her general audience, this is my personal assessment.

Despite the minor discrepancies that I had with the narration, the story de Rosnay shares pulls at your heartstrings. Although these are fictional characters, the events of Vel d’Hiv were real and tragic. “Sarah’s Key” serves as a reminder to never forget the events brought about by the German Occupation throughout Europe during World War II. Even dark times in the past still have a way of changing our present and future.

**UPDATE 2-29-16**- I found that there is a DVD of this novel, and it is absolutely worth watching, if you decide to skip the read. If I didn’t know the book, the DVD wouldn’t have jumped off the shelf to me, but in my opinion it streamlines the entire plot. There are obviously things cut out in the movie that are in the book, but the emotional connection is still there. I cried, and I’m not embarrassed about it. It’s just so heart wrenching…. and I still encourage you all to hear this story.