I almost skipped this book because of all the hype. A book about a blind girl and a Nazi soldier in war-torn France sounded like it might be on the melodramatic side. But so many people recommended the book, and as it made its way to the finals in this year’s Tournament of Books, I felt like it was time to give it a try.
While I was reading it, author Anthony Doerr won the Pulitzer Prize.
Often all that hype makes it impossible for a book to meet expectations. And that was the case for me. All the Light is a very good book. It’s great historical fiction and an interesting telling of a World War II story. But I don’t think it broke any new ground in World War II historical fiction, as compared to Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life (which had its flaws but a really interesting story structure).
When I read Olive Kitteridge recently, I thought about what it means to be a Pulitzer Prize-winning book. Obviously I’m not the judge. But there are a few factors that make a book great for me. One is that it’s emotionally powerful, which is not the same thing as being a tear-jerker. Another is that, as I said above, it’s innovative or ground-breaking. The third and most important for me is that it makes me think – about the characters, why they did what they did, and about my own life.
For me, All the Light was a Very Good Book. It’s beautifully written, which of course counts for a lot. But at times it was put-downable. In some ways, it was like The Goldfinch for me, another Pulitzer winner. Not a book I loved reading, but a book I could appreciate (although I think The Goldfinch has a complexity that I didn’t really see in this book). Ultimately I wanted to be moved more than I was.
You’ve all heard about this book, but here’s the quick synopsis. Marie-Laure is a teenage girl in Paris who has been blind since childhood. She memorizes her neighborhood, her house, and her father’s workplace, the Museum of Natural History — only when the Nazis occupy Paris, she and her father have to flee to the home of her uncle, a small coastal town in Brittany (St. Malo). St. Malo, if you know the history, will be nearly demolished by the Allies when they retake France. The book opens up with a terrified teenage Marie-Laure, alone in her St. Malo home, as the bombs begin to fall.
Werner grows up in an orphanage in Germany. He has a passion and a talent for electronics, so when he gets older he’s sent to a special school, which leads to him becoming a soldier in the Nazi army. In Russia and France he uses his knowledge of radio transmissions to destroy anyone who might be secretly broadcasting to the Allies.
I liked Marie-Laure and really admired her strength as a character. The losses she suffers are even more painful because she depends on the people and places she knows. I also liked that we see the war through the eyes of a Nazi soldier. Werner is not a strong character, but he’s put in an impossible situation, and it’s understandable that he’s not really able to question the horrors he sees around him. Some of the most interesting parts for me take place in his school, where the Nazis are slowly indoctrinating the children to turn on each other’s every weakness.
That said, Werner’s story dragged at times, especially around two-thirds into the book. His failure to question authority gets old after a while, as do the long drives around Russia and Europe. Also, there’s a storyline about a valuable jewel that didn’t do much for me – World War II is more than dramatic enough without mysterious jewels, and by the end it felt a little silly as a plot device.
This book prompted me to go online and read about St. Malo and its history during World War II. When I visited Normandy last year, it was fascinating to learn about the battles that took place to liberate the French and ultimately win the war. The French suffered under the Nazi regime and again from the damage caused by the Allies. It’s just much more complicated than just the good guys coming in and freeing France from the Nazis.
So as we celebrate the 70th anniversary of V-E day, this book is definitely a good way to revisit that history. Did it rise to Pulitzer-worthy for me? Not entirely. It was, however, a Very Good Read.