Doctorow continues his long romance with the past in this microcosmic story of a sensitive boy's early life (up to the fifth grade) in the Bronx of the 1930's. What might have been merely a long, warm bath in nostalgia becomes—through the sheer craft of the book—an evocative meditation on time past, and, by constant implication, time present. Edgar Altschuler grows up in a world now gone (a world of leather shaving strops and the horse-drawn carts of vegetable vendors), and his story itself, however compelling, is nothing if not familiar: as he grows up, his parents offer him a polarity of great extremes within which he must somehow shape his own identity. His father is adventurous, liberal-minded, and idealistically impulsive, but not always honest or sexually faithful, and he comes close (among other things, he loses his music-store business) to letting the family drift toward ruin. The quietly suffering mother—desirous of order and propriety and continuity—does what she can to shore up the family's lives against these potential ruins. Meanwhile, world history moves on, always just off-stage, but hinted at again and again, in ways both large and small (Edgar almost dies of a burst appendix, and thus learns of mortality; he witnesses the bizarre schoolyard death of a woman by car accident; and—in one of the book's most wondrous of many wondrous passages—he watches the great airship Hindenburg float marvellously through the sky en route to its disastrous and fiery end). Late in the book, Edgar enters an essay contest on the subject of The Typical American Boy (he writes: "He is kind. . . He knows the value of a dollar. He looks death in the face"). The essay wins honorable mention, and Edgar and his family are given free passes to the World's Fair, where they gaze upon the marvels of a clean, trim, idealized future—while clouds of cruelty and doom (the year is 1940) gather around the edges of all the world. With few overt concessions to the nostalgia-trade (nylon stockings are "new"), this is a delicately-faceted work, perhaps Doctorow's most austere and uncompromised since The Book of Daniel, though far more humble in its material—a quiet homage to a domestic world now quite gone, and one that makes our own world all the more frightening and awesome by its absence. Heavy with literary indebtedness, the book nevertheless, by its consistency of both passion and craft, achieves the radiance and sinuosity of a masterpiece.

Pub Date: Nov. 22, 1985

ISBN: 081297820X

Page Count: 312

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: March 24, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 1985

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Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

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Doerr presents us with two intricate stories, both of which take place during World War II; late in the novel, inevitably, they intersect.

In August 1944, Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind 16-year-old living in the walled port city of Saint-Malo in Brittany and hoping to escape the effects of Allied bombing. D-Day took place two months earlier, and Cherbourg, Caen and Rennes have already been liberated. She’s taken refuge in this city with her great-uncle Etienne, at first a fairly frightening figure to her. Marie-Laure’s father was a locksmith and craftsman who made scale models of cities that Marie-Laure studied so she could travel around on her own. He also crafted clever and intricate boxes, within which treasures could be hidden. Parallel to the story of Marie-Laure we meet Werner and Jutta Pfennig, a brother and sister, both orphans who have been raised in the Children’s House outside Essen, in Germany. Through flashbacks we learn that Werner had been a curious and bright child who developed an obsession with radio transmitters and receivers, both in their infancies during this period. Eventually, Werner goes to a select technical school and then, at 18, into the Wehrmacht, where his technical aptitudes are recognized and he’s put on a team trying to track down illegal radio transmissions. Etienne and Marie-Laure are responsible for some of these transmissions, but Werner is intrigued since what she’s broadcasting is innocent—she shares her passion for Jules Verne by reading aloud 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A further subplot involves Marie-Laure’s father’s having hidden a valuable diamond, one being tracked down by Reinhold von Rumpel, a relentless German sergeant-major.

Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

Pub Date: May 6, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4658-6

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: March 6, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2014

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A deeply satisfying novel, both sensuously vivid and remarkably poignant.


Norwegian novelist Jacobsen folds a quietly powerful coming-of-age story into a rendition of daily life on one of Norway’s rural islands a hundred years ago in a novel that was shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize.

Ingrid Barrøy, her father, Hans, mother, Maria, grandfather Martin, and slightly addled aunt Barbro are the owners and sole inhabitants of Barrøy Island, one of numerous small family-owned islands in an area of Norway barely touched by the outside world. The novel follows Ingrid from age 3 through a carefree early childhood of endless small chores, simple pleasures, and unquestioned familial love into her more ambivalent adolescence attending school off the island and becoming aware of the outside world, then finally into young womanhood when she must make difficult choices. Readers will share Ingrid’s adoration of her father, whose sense of responsibility conflicts with his romantic nature. He adores Maria, despite what he calls her “la-di-da” ways, and is devoted to Ingrid. Twice he finds work on the mainland for his sister, Barbro, but, afraid she’ll be unhappy, he brings her home both times. Rooted to the land where he farms and tied to the sea where he fishes, Hans struggles to maintain his family’s hardscrabble existence on an island where every repair is a struggle against the elements. But his efforts are Sisyphean. Life as a Barrøy on Barrøy remains precarious. Changes do occur in men’s and women’s roles, reflected in part by who gets a literal chair to sit on at meals, while world crises—a war, Sweden’s financial troubles—have unexpected impact. Yet the drama here occurs in small increments, season by season, following nature’s rhythm through deaths and births, moments of joy and deep sorrow. The translator’s decision to use roughly translated phrases in conversation—i.e., “Tha’s goen’ nohvar” for "You’re going nowhere")—slows the reading down at first but ends up drawing readers more deeply into the world of Barrøy and its prickly, intensely alive inhabitants.

A deeply satisfying novel, both sensuously vivid and remarkably poignant.

Pub Date: April 7, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-77196-319-0

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Biblioasis

Review Posted Online: Jan. 13, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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