All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

lightI 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.

  16 comments for “All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

  1. Jill Barth
    May 18, 2015 at 9:23 am

    Anthony Doerr is a tremendous author. Haven’t gotten to read this yet but it’s next in line. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  2. May 18, 2015 at 1:35 pm

    I’ve been wondering whether this is worth it for exactly the same reasons. The Guardian reviewer says its poeticism is overblown, which is something that tends to really irritate me, so I’ve been leaning towards giving it a miss. But then, I enjoyed The Goldfinch, which you said was a Very Good Book similar in quality to this one, so I still can’t make up my mind!

    • May 23, 2015 at 10:01 am

      Thanks for commenting Elle! This book is pretty different from the Goldfinch, but I guess I’d say read it if you’re really interested in WWII historical fiction. I didn’t find it overly poetic but also didn’t find the writing as amazing as many people did.

      • May 23, 2015 at 12:49 pm

        Seeing as most of the time the sight of a WWII historical fiction cover makes me want to sigh deeply…I should probably give it a miss! 🙂

  3. May 18, 2015 at 3:46 pm

    Glad you tried it. I wouldn’t ignore a book because of hype, but I know some who do.

  4. Col
    May 19, 2015 at 1:13 am

    I’ve just started this and 100 odd pages in I’m a little underwhelmed. It’s certainly interesting enough for me to keep going but as yet I’ve not really warmed to the characters – I know I’m clearly supposed to but not made that connection yet! So this far Id agree with you – good but not yet living up to the expectations I had from the hype!

    • May 23, 2015 at 10:05 am

      Col, thanks for the comment. I think I found the characters more engaging when they were younger, especially Werner — for me his school years were the most interesting.

  5. May 23, 2015 at 5:11 am

    I also avoid books that get too much hype (unless I read them before they are published). While I’m more curious than before, I don’t think you’ve sold it on my completely.

    • May 25, 2015 at 4:14 pm

      Davida, thanks for the comment. I’m certainly not trying to sell anyone on this book, so that’s good. As for hype, sometimes books really do live up to it. And other times you wonder what all the fuss was about. You never know until you start reading, but no one can read everything!

  6. May 24, 2015 at 8:08 pm

    I have an iffy relationship with Pulitzers, and this one was no different. I lost interest about a third of the way through and haven’t looked back. Sigh.

    • May 25, 2015 at 4:12 pm

      Well, at least I’m not the only one who wasn’t completely amazed by this book. I thought maybe I was…

  7. May 25, 2015 at 4:48 pm

    I almost passed this book by as well, though I think i ended up enjoying it more than you. In fact, i couldn’t believe that it didn’t sweep up more awards. I agree that it didn’t break new ground, but I loved it and couldn’t put it down.

  8. May 27, 2015 at 10:01 pm

    Heh, I completely agree. After reading so may glowing reviews, I was turning the pages wondering “When does the amazing-ness kick in? Am I missing something? It was, indeed, a Very Good Book, but it didn’t have that extra magic for me. His writing is a bit longwinded and overly indulgent with adjectives at times as well.

    I read an interview with the author saying the idea for the story came from overhearing someone raging when their cell phone service cut out, and Doerr wanted to recapture the wonderment of a voice coming out of a box. I can get behind that idea, but I think it gets lost in the Sea of Flames and all of that. The Saint Malo part came in after he visited the town, and was interested in telling the stories that happened after D-Day; how “winning” the war took quite a long time. I get how that’s intriguing to explore, but all the pieces didn’t quite click for me.

    Again, a very good piece of writing, it just did not blow me away. Though it’s a critical and commercial success, so who am I to say?

    Anyway, I found this post searching for someone who had a similar reaction to the (over)hype, mostly so I didn’t feel crazy. The best part: I had literally just said to my fiance tonight, in reference to finishing the book: “It’s like how I felt after reading The Goldfinch. Either I missed something everyone else saw, or it’s not *quite* as groundbreaking and phenomenal as they say.” (Although I liked The Goldfinch a fair bit more than this one.)

    A long-winded way of saying I’m now a fan of your blog, and am going to poke around looking for an idea of what to read next.

    • May 27, 2015 at 10:15 pm

      Great comment Cheryl, and thanks for the info on Doerr. I would agree that Goldfinch is a more complex and more ambitious book than this one is. It succeeded on a lot of levels, I just didn’t love it.

  9. July 3, 2015 at 6:29 am

    I love Anthony Doerr’s writing – thought the story he won The Sunday Times Short Story Comp was wonderful (“The Deep”). I really enjoyed this novel, too, and liked the maze-like structure of each chapter – they seemed to narrow in on a central point. But I did need to take breaks from it, now and then. Found quite an overwhelming read, if you know what I mean!

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