Review: All the Light We Cannot See

July 18, 2017

Anthony Doerr’s “All the Light We Cannot See” is amazing. You might have already guessed that from the little sticker on the cover that says “Winner of the Pulitzer Prize,” but I can truly tell you that this is a book everyone should read. Not only are the characters Doerr creates beautiful and wholesome, but the intricate plot-line, the well-developed metaphors, all create the enchanting World War II story that is “All the Light We Cannot See.”

Marie-Laure lives in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where her father works. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great-uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.

In a mining town in Germany, Werner Pfennig, an orphan, grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find that brings them news and stories from places they have never seen or imagined. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments and is enlisted to use his talent to track down the resistance. Deftly interweaving the lives of Marie-Laure and Werner, Doerr illuminates the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another.

I first picked up “All the Light We Cannot See” at a bookstore a couple of years ago. I do have to say it was the beautiful cover artwork that pulled me in, but after reading the summary, I was even more interested. World War II stories following the lives of children are popular (books like “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” and “The Book Thief”), but this is the first one I have read that was not written for children or young adults that still had children as the main focus of the plot. And even more, they are children whose perspectives we don’t normally see in WWII books–that of a Hitler Youth German boy and a blind French girl.

One of the most interesting, and one of my most favorite, parts of this book is the way Doerr structures it. He alternates between the future and the present every 100 or so pages until they catch up to each other. By doing this, he reveals mini spoilers for what will happen to the characters later in their lives. For me, these reveals kept me from putting the book down, almost like they were reverse cliffhangers. I had to keep reading until I found out why such-and-such happened, or do discover how the characters got to that point.

The novel is told from multiple perspectives, often switching between Marie-Laure and Werner. I really liked how Doerr did this because it allows you to see how the characters’ lives are changing simultaneously, and it helps better understand how their lives cross in the novel. The reader does also occasionally get to hear from other characters besides the two protagonists. Mainly for the point of introducing a new perspective or revealing something unknown to the main characters, I found these inputs to be really interesting and significant. The only downside to how Doerr tells this story is that the constantly shifting perspectives can at points jar you. All of the sudden you leave Marie’s story and enter Werner’s and it can be a little too quick sometimes, especially when you are still stuck in Marie’s head-space.

I will say that this book is very long, and it took me a while to read. At 530 pages, this is no quick and easy beach read. However, even with the long page length, this is a great book and definitely one to read if you are a fan of WWII and historical fiction. The story it tells and the points it makes are relevant even today. One beneficial thing Doerr does that adds to the page length is that he actually wraps up his novel. Not only are there no loose strings at the end, but he really spends the time letting the reader know where each character ended up and how their lives were changed because of what happened during the war. I really appreciated that he did that because I love getting to see characters almost beyond the scope of the plot, see how they are as adults–what jobs they have, whether they get married, if they have kids. Doerr gives the reader all that and more, and it really gives closure to the end of the novel. It doesn’t leave you wanting more, which I really respect.

So, to wrap up, “All the Light We Cannot See” is an amazing book everyone should read. Doerr tells too good of a story for anyone to let it go unread.

“There is the humility of being a father to someone so powerful, as if he were only a narrow conduit for another, greater thing. That’s how it feels right now, he thinks, kneeling beside her, rinsing her hair: as though his love for his daughter will outstrip the limits of his body. The walls could fall away, even the whole city, and the brightness of that feeling would not wane.”

  1. Love the review. Can’t wait to read it. I agree that it doesn’t sound like a casual (or short) beach read. It sounds much more intense and thoughtful. Where you don’t want to pick it up and put it down over and over!

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