The narrator describes Frederick—he’s currently living with his mother outside West Berlin. Frederick spends his days making strange drawings of loops. Frederick’s mother takes care of him, and tries to appear as happy as possible. But fewer and fewer friends visit her, and she becomes deeply lonely.
Doerr doesn’t feel obligated to provide any happy endings. Even his theme of powerful family bonds doesn’t always hold true, as Frederick and his mother live together, but neither is fulfilled or at peace. The wounds of the past are too great for both of them.
One day, Frederick receives a letter. The letter has been sent by “a woman from Essen” (whom we recognize to be Jutta), and contains a second letter, from Werner to Frederick. Frederick is uninterested in this letter. Frederick’s mother opens it alone, and inside she finds a beautiful print showing birds. She remembers how Frederick used to love studying birds. In the years after his “accident” at the National Institute, Frederick has been unable to make new memories—he’s barely conscious of where he is. As Frederick’s mother thinks about all this, she hears the “hoot” of an owl. She goes to Frederick’s room, where she finds an owl perched on the balcony outside the window. She feels a sudden rush of emotion and points out the owl to Frederick. Frederick finally becomes alert, but only asks, “What are we doing?”
In a conventional novel, the Audubon prints would retrigger Frederick’s memory, and he’d emerge from his mental deterioration—but once again Doerr is committed to portraying the harsh realities of life, and so he rarely fulfills the conventional demands of plot and story arc. Art and communication have their limits: as hard as the characters try to connect with one another, their efforts are sometimes—as in this case—in vain. The owl in this scene might have reminded Frederick of his old bird watching hobby, but here it makes no lasting difference to his mental state, and only increases his mother’s pain.