All the Light We Cannot See

Originally published December 2014

Surprise, surprise. World War II was depressing.

Here’s the thing about historical fiction—if someone asked me what my favorite literary genre was, I would never say, “Historical fiction.” In fact, it would probably be last on my list. (Music? FUNK, people.)

Still, some of the most recent “best” books reside somewhere in World War II. Kate Atkinson’s “Life After Life,” Chris Bohjalian’s “The Light in the Ruins,” and now Anthony Doerr’s “All the Light We Cannot See.”

It was the World War II theme that kept me from picking up the book for so long this year—but I felt compelled to give it a try given all the accolades it received. I don’t regret the decision, for certain, but I would stop short of telling everyone to rush out and pick it up.

The story itself is one that’s easy to engage with—there are two main characters, Werner, and Marie-Laure. Werner is a young orphan living in a German children’s home in the late 1930s/early 1940s, along with his younger sister Jutta. Early on, he discovers he has an aptitude for problem-solving and electronics, loves science and the IChing that is radio.

Marie-Laure is a young girl living in Paris with her father, who is a locksmith at the Museum of Natural History. Blind since she was about six years old, Marie-Laure spends her days at the museum with her father and the other employees, where she develops a deep passion for nature and all the living creatures within it.

It’s clear from the beginning the point of this novel is to bring these two lives together. And Doerr delivers. It’s a sad and beautiful resolution, expertly crafted. Here is what I liked the most:

  • The novel is well-constructed, with short chapters that move back and forth in time, and alternate between Marie-Laure and Werner, making it easy to read and drawing you in quickly.
  • The relationships—THAT’s my genre. Relationships of all kinds intrigue me, and with this book, there’s the familial, between Marie-Laure and her father and her great uncle, and Werner and his sister; the friendships, particularly that of Werner and (sniff!) Frederick, and occupational, especially those Werner develops in the army.
  • The diamond!

What could prove to be a drag:

  • It’s longish, but keep in mind, I read this after “The Bone Clocks,” so it could just be me pining for something quick and snappy. I felt like it probably could have lost 50 pages.
  • Frederick!
  • The setting—there is just nothing lush, warm and happy when it comes to war. Readers should be prepared for some dark scenes, literally and figuratively.

Still, it remains a beautiful story, and could be a great holiday gift for Mom, Dad or Uncle Fred. I just … poor Frederick.

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