All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

all the light
Copies at my local Barnes & Noble.

I had no plans to read this book. I usually stay away from the overly hyped books of the year, not so much because I think they’ll be a fraud, but because it’s so hard to get my hands on a copy and they usually don’t seem worth giving up a precious spot on my holds list for. This one, though, kept calling my name so I put a hold on my library’s digital copy. I got the notification of its availability on a day when I was between books and as soon as I started reading it I knew it was going to be a wonderful journey.

The novel uses a dual narrative that alternates between the story of Marie-Laure, a blind girl who lives in Paris with her father, and Werner, a German boy who lives in a Catholic orphanage in a depressed mining town. Their lives before the war are ripe with discovery and curiosity: Marie-Laure about whelks and other shelled creatures, Werner about science and radios in particular. As conflict between the two nations approaches Werner is recruited into the Hitler Youth and sent to a school to learn how to be a perfect soldier and his skill with radios is utilized to further the efforts of discovering resistance broadcasts in Russia and Poland.

When the German army marches into Paris, Marie-Laure and her father flee and turn up in Saint- Malo at the home of her great-uncle Etienne, a man still suffering from the trauma of serving in WWI who is also obsessed with radios. Marie-Laure’s father constructs detailed, miniature models of the walled city to teach her how to navigate the streets and alleyways on her own though she is rarely let out into the occupied city. Madame Manec (my favorite character in the novel), her uncle’s caretaker, handles the intricacies of finding food, complying with curfews and orders and sharing information with the neighbors. She also recruits her female friends into resistance efforts by partaking in small rebellions like baking loaves of bread that conceal secret communiques that they pass along to key resistance figures, efforts that Marie-Laure also supports.

In August of 1944 after living for years under occupation Saint-Malo is bombed by American planes. Amazingly, the paths of Werner and Marie-Laure finally intertwine amid fire and destruction. Doerr seamlessly brings these two incredible characters together through a series of believable coincidences that underlie the plot.

The writing is incredibly lyrical with beautiful imagery and a perfect, understated tone. Describing both living under occupation in France and serving in the occupying German army brilliantly shows the humanity of both sides and doesn’t demonize the Germans or glorify the French. The emotions, decisions and motives of the characters are complex and layered as is this story. There are many, many levels of enchantment here, too many to mention, and the way they combine makes a gorgeous, robust novel. I was completely engrossed and am happy that this was the last book I read in 2014. I ended the year on a high note, indeed.

Have you read All the Light We Cannot See?

23 comments / Add your comment below

    1. There are quite a lot of WWII books out there. I don’t read very many of them, though, so I don’t have the fatigue! I usually only read the ones that really, really intrigue me and this one is very much worth it.

  1. I had noticed this book was getting a lot of hype and I’ve been a bit hesitant to read it for that reason, but it does sound wonderful. I think you’ve convinced me to try it. I’m glad you were able to end the year with such a good book!

    1. This is one of the hyped books, like The Goldfinch, that really does live up to the buzz. Some books just deserve all the praise. I hope you’ll like it.

  2. I’d also noticed that this book was generating a lot of buzz, and like you & Helen, I’ve been a bit hesitant. But I am putting it on my list, for after the TBR Dare. It does sound like a highlight of your reading!

    1. Part of my job is keeping up with the buzzy books, but I don’t really read very many of them. This one appealed to my interests, though, and I am so glad I read it.

    1. What IS wrong with you, Jenny? 🙂 I did not have the same reaction, obviously, but I can see how his writing might not please everyone. Needless to say, I liked it. Maybe it would be better to listen to it?

  3. My goodness, judging by the comments this book is getting the tough sell treatment but I’m with you….a wonderful read! I loved the WWII story with a pinch of whimsy and push it on as many people at the library as possible. Still, we can lead a horse to water…they’ll thank you later, Anbolyn.

  4. I’ve seen this book getting a lot of buzz over the past couple of months, but it’s only recently, in the past week or so, that I’ve seen a sort of second wave of buzz that has made me want to read it. You’ve convinced me to give it a try. I’m actually even more intrigued after seeing the comments with differing opinions about the writing style.

    1. I think it got a second wave of buzz because it appeared on so many ‘Best of 2014’ lists. That’s why I decided to read it! I have a co-worker who is reading it now and doesn’t like the writing style, but I honestly thought it was lovely.

  5. Don’t let the hype keep you away. I chose this book before the hype to review for my book group. It will be very good for discussion. Will let you know how it goes.

Thank you for reading and commenting.

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