Book: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Genre: Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction
Publication Date: May 6, 2014
Synopsis (from Goodreads): Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris within walking distance of the Museum of Natural History where he works as the master of the locks (there are thousands of locks in the museum). When she is six, she goes blind, and her father builds her a model of their neighborhood, every house, every manhole, so she can memorize it with her fingers and navigate the real streets with her feet and cane. When the Germans occupy Paris, father and daughter flee to Saint-Malo on the Brittany coast, where Marie-Laure’s agoraphobic great uncle lives in a tall, narrow house by the sea wall.
In another world in Germany, an orphan boy, Werner, grows up with his younger sister, Jutta, both enchanted by a crude radio Werner finds. He becomes a master at building and fixing radios, a talent that wins him a place at an elite and brutal military academy and, ultimately, makes him a highly specialized tracker of the Resistance. Werner travels through the heart of Hitler Youth to the far-flung outskirts of Russia, and finally into Saint-Malo, where his path converges with Marie-Laure.
Thoughts: I wasn’t sure at first how I felt about the ending of this book, so I had to take a few days to think it over before giving it a rating. To be honest, I was initially somewhere in between liking it and really liking it (I know, I know – everyone seems to love this book). I’ll talk about my reasons for being on the fence after I tell you about some of the things I loved about this book. For one, the writing is beautiful; some may think that it’s a bit verbose, but I would argue that it has to be at times in order to illustrate Marie-Laure’s blindness. I can’t fully describe it, but I almost felt like I was in Marie-Laure’s shoes while reading, relying only on the sensations of touch, sound, taste, and smell to take in the world around me. Doerr writes in such a way that makes it seem like blindness in itself can be beautiful.
I found myself becoming very attached to the characters in this book, especially Marie-Laure. While I liked Werner’s storyline as well, I always looked forward to getting back to Marie-Laure’s POV. As a quick aside – some other reviewers have pointed out that the frequent changes in POV and the short chapters were bothersome to them, and though normally I might agree, I thought it worked really well for this book. Historical fiction novels tend to be somewhat long and slow-paced anyway, and I think if the chapters had been longer and the POVs more spread out, the book may have dragged a bit. But, back to the characters.
One of the more curious things about this book is how Doerr manages to make Werner, a member of the Hitler Youth, a sympathetic character. How do you ever know that you are doing the right thing? This is the question that Werner struggles to answer throughout the book, and his struggle is what makes him human. As an orphan, Werner accepts the “help” of Nazi who takes interest in his gift of being able to fix any kind of radio in order to avoid his fate as a miner. Werner’s gift ultimately leads him a Nazi military academy, where he fails to truly fit in with his peers and reconcile his beliefs with those of his superiors. Werner makes a friend at the academy who suggests that some German youth may not have had much control over their own lives, further illustrating that everything is not always as it seems.
Though I could keep discussing the good parts of this book, I’ll move onto the things I wasn’t so crazy about. There is a third storyline that follows Sergeant Major von Rumpel, a dying German mineralogist who is on a desperate search for an enchanted diamond called the Sea of Flames. Though this storyline is the source of most of the suspense in the novel, and is seemingly very important in the beginning, I ultimately didn’t understand what the whole point of it was. Another thing I was a little underwhelmed by was how the storylines all came together in the end. Part of the momentum of the story for me was wanting to see how Marie-Laure and Werner would meet, and what happened was not completely what I was hoping for. On the other hand, the story’s ending is definitely more rooted in reality than perhaps the reader wants it to be, which contributes to its literary fiction feel.
Bottom line: The aspects of this book that I was either confused by or disappointed in weren’t enough to keep me from really enjoying this read overall. If you love historical fiction – especially set during WWII – you should definitely pick this one up.