on May 8, 2014
It has been a while since I have found a book that I wanted to read slowly so that I could soak in every detail in hopes that the last page seems to never come.
When reading the synopsis of this novel, I never imagined that I would feel so connected to a book where one of the main characters is blind and the other a brilliant young German orphan who was chosen to attend a brutal military academy under Hitler's power using his innate engineering skills.
This novel was so much more than the above states. The idiosyncrasies of each individual character are so well defined and expressed in such ways that come across the page almost lyrically. I was invited into the pages and could not only imagine the atmosphere, but all of my senses were collectively enticed from the very first page until the last.
I was so amazed with the way that the author was able to heighten all my senses in a way that I felt like I knew what it was like to be blind. In most well-written books you get of a sense of what the characters look like and follow them throughout the book almost as if you are on a voyage, but with this novel, I could imagine what it was like to be in Marie-Laure's shoes. The descriptives were so beautifully intricate that I could imagine the atmosphere through touch and sound. It was amazing, really.
There were so many different aspects of the book that are lived out in separate moments and in different countries that find a way to unite in the end. What impressed me most was that I could have never predicted the outcome. It was as though all cliches were off the table and real life was set in motion. Life outside of books can be very messy and the author stayed true to life but in a magical and symbolic way.
I have said in other reviews that just when I think that I have read my last book centered around the Second World War, another seems to pop up. I should emphasize that this book created an image of war in a way that I have never imagined before. I truly got a sense of what it must have been like for children who lived a happy life and then suddenly were on curfew and barely had food to eat. It also showed the side of young children who are basically brainwashed by Nazi leaders and made into animals who seem to make choices that they normally wouldn't in order to survive. And by survive, I mean dodging severe abuse by their own colleagues.
This book may haunt me for some time. I can't express enough how beautifully written the pages are. I highly recommend this read as it is my favorite so far for 2014.
ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE is one of the best books you’ll read this year. On one hand, the title implies the lessons learned by a young German orphan boy about radio waves. On the other hand, as the author describes it, “It’s also a metaphorical suggestion that there are countless invisible stories still buried within World War II.” Add in a newly blinded French girl who is forced to leave her familiar surroundings, and you’ll soon find yourself in literary heaven.
The layered meanings run deep in this book. No wonder nearly every advanced review uses the word “intricate” to describe this masterpiece. The German boy and his sister discover an old radio, where they hear science lessons from afar. There are lessons about the brain, sitting inside the darkness of our skull, interpreting light; there are lessons about coal having been plants living millions of years ago, absorbing light, now buried in darkness; lessons about light waves that we cannot see—all applicable as the story unfolds.
Readers will appreciate the short, almost lyrical chapters of alternating characters. The author helps by italicizing earlier mentioned quotes and then leaving almost every chapter closing with a message to ponder. Take for example: “a real diamond is never perfect”, “open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever”, and “the entropy of a closed system never decreases”. All of this is explained in a natural way, but never given out in an assuming manner. The story flows and draws your heart into its deep meaning.
Having personal connections to both veterans of World War II and members of the blind community, I can attest to the authenticity of this story’s writing. Author Anthony Doerr brings out lovely characters, along with their own fascinations: seashell collecting, bird watching, locksmithing, electronics, and geology. The history surrounding these personal stories is real and deep. You will fall in love.
The author also includes connections to the song Clair de Lune, the book 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, and a fictional story about a priceless diamond called the Sea of Flames, whose owner “so long as he keeps it, the keeper of the stone will live forever.”
I cannot proclaim loud enough how much this book means to me; I have been left awe-inspired. So, thank you to Scribner for making this book available for me to review. It has been an honor.
on May 6, 2014
Set in World War II France and Germany, All the Light We Cannot See is my favorite kind of novel: long, rich, populated by a range of imperfect characters, some who try to transcend that imperfection, others who cannot see it.
The cast of characters includes Marie-Laure, blind since age six, with a quick mind and a great deal of self-confidence; her father, locksmith for the Museum of Natural History in Paris; Marie-Laure’s great-uncle, an agoraphobic haunted by ghosts since he returned from World War I; the great-uncle’s elderly housekeeper, who finds the courage to join the French resistance; Werner, a German orphan who is a prodigy in the creation and repair of radios; Werner’s sister Jutta, left behind when Werner is accepted into a science academy for Hitler Youth that offers more political indoctrination than science; and a whole host of others.
Anthony Doerr brings this wide assembly of individuals to life, moving among them, slowly drawing them nearer one another, fleshing each of them out so that even those we might expect to be stereotypes are much more multifaceted.
And among these multifaceted characters lies a multifaceted stone: a diamond with a legendary history. In less able hands, the diamond would have dominated this story, which would have degenerated into a variation on Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it’s the characters who are the heart of All the Light We Cannot See. There are a few we hate, but for the most part, we can’t help but see the better parts of them. The question is whether they will discover these better selves in time to make a difference of some sort in a world quite literally in flames.
I’m hesitant to provide more summary. Reading this book, meeting the people in it, sharing their journeys, is an engrossing experience that shouldn’t be undercut by foreknowledge. All the Light We Cannot See contains a great deal of action, but that action is more than balanced by the development of characters we witness over the decade or so that this novel encompasses. This is novel of people more than it is a novel of events.
I received and electronic ARC of this book to review and find myself longing for its release date so I can get a paper copy, one that will feel as solid in my hands as Doerr’s narrative. We’re less than halfway through the year, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if in December I remember All the Light We Cannot See as my favorite read of the year.
on July 12, 2014
It is hard to write a negative review about such an ambitious and heartfelt book, but this one just didn't come together for me. The potentially fascinating characters -- an orphaned teenage German boy and a blind teenage French girl, whose lives in the years before and during the German occupation of France overlap and intersect -- never felt fully realized. In a sense I felt that the author let our familiarity with events of World War II allow him to take shortcuts in developing the characters and their motivations; common historical knowledge and broad characterizations took the place of deep development of internal motivations and choices behind their actions.
Another problem for me was the author's decision to break up such a long novel into so many very short chapters, and to make so many jumps forward and backward in time. I couldn't see the advantage to this. For me it created a barrier to surrendering myself to the story and getting lost in the world of the characters. Instead I found myself constantly aware of the fact that I was being told a story rather than flowing with it -- which became particularly frustrating in a book of this length.
There are beautiful aspects to this story and I don't regret having read it all the way through. But it will not stick with me as an unforgettable take on that incomprehensible chapter of history. For that, I recommend Ursula Hegi's "Stones From The River," a book I read years ago and still think about.
on June 2, 2014
I have some book prejudices. I generally dislike books:
-- That are over 400 pages
-- That employ split or jumping chronologies
-- About war (or, frankly, that could be classified as historical fiction, generally)
-- With overly flowery writing
Bearing this in mind, there are some books that I know I should probably avoid, because, based on these prejudices, they’re set up for failure. All the Light We Cannot See is one of those books that covers a bunch of my book-prejudice bases:
-- It’s a whopping 530 pages long (No lie: holding it up made my forearms tired).
-- Every few chapters, the year changes, skipping back and forth in time. The book’s timeline ranges from 1934 to 2014 but is focused mainly between1940 and 1944.
-- In case that timeline didn’t raise any red flags, let’s be clear: this is largely set during World War II (in Germany and France).
-- The book is peppered with sentences like this one: “The faintly metallic smell of the falling snow surrounds her,” and author Doerr admitted in an interview on Powell’s Books Blog, “I know this is going to be more lyrical than maybe 70 percent of American readers want to see . . .” At times, it comes off as super cheesy and too in-your-face symbolic or wannabe meaningful (like the chapter that closes: “Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.”).
I should have HATED this book. I never should have read it. I should have ignored the ratings and the reviews and the hype and gone about my business. There are billions of books I could have read instead.
But the early praise for this one was serious. Indie Bound named it the #1 pick on its Indie Next List for May. Amazon called it one of the Best Books of the Month for May (and the early customer reviews were some of the most glowing I have ever seen). The New York Times described it as “hauntingly beautiful” and “elegantly circuitous.” The Washington Post’s review begins: “I’m not sure I will read a better novel this year than Anthony Doerr’s ‘All the Light We Cannot See.’”
And, I’ll admit it: I’m a sucker for hype. If something gets ridiculously rave reviews, I have to find out if it deserves them . . . even if the book seems like it’s one that I’m destined to hate.
So, I read it. Yes, the writing is a overly flowery/lyrical at times. And it could have been a bit subtler (the light theme didn’t need to be hammered so much). And too much time was spent on and detail provided for certain plot points, while others were rushed through or glossed over (details would be spoilery, so I will leave it at that). But, overall, this book is a success. Here are some of the things it has going for it:
-- The cast of characters is diverse, interesting, flawed, and likeable. Although this is a book set during the War, it is a character-driven tale about good versus evil (or light versus dark, if you prefer). At the forefront are two teenagers, Marie-Laure and Werner. Marie-Laure lives in Paris with her locksmith father. She goes blind from a degenerative disease at an early age. Her non-visual grasp on the world is beautifully and richly realized. She is clever and sensitive and highly perceptive. When Paris is attacked, she and her father escape to Saint-Malo to stay with Marie-Laure’s agoraphobic great-uncle and his feisty, old housekeeper. Werner is an orphan who lives in a children’s home in Zollverein. He is curious, brilliant, and adept at building and fixing radios. When word of his skills spreads, he is recruited to the National Political Institute of Education at Schulpforta. There, he helps develop a triangulating device. He then joins a team that uses this device to locate and abolish enemy radio transmitters (both the instruments and their operators).
-- The longest chapter in the book is maybe six pages. Most are two. Despite the fact that the book is ridiculously long, it reads like a much shorter book (there’s a lot of white space among those 530 pages). As a result, the lyrical writing comes off as poignant and poetic, rather than slow and overly descriptive.
-- The plot is complex and intricate. Woven into the story are numerous odd and interesting elements, including: a huge diamond called the Sea of Flames that carries with it a curse, Marie-Laure’s father’s incredibly detailed models of their neighborhoods in Paris and Saint-Malo, an old dog kennel that abuts the ocean and is home to dozens of snails and shellfish, old science lessons recorded in French and broadcast for hundreds of miles, and loaves of bread carrying secret messages. Throughout the first several hundred pages, you are aware that Marie-Laure’s and Werner’s paths are destined to cross, and the build-up to that moment is suspenseful and exciting. There are moments of tenderness, moments of violence, moments of sadness, moments of humor, moments of courage, and moments of redemption (it’s a long book, after all).
My earlier list of book prejudices was not exhaustive. I have many others. For instance, I love:
-- Well-written books
-- Books driven by unique, interesting, likeable characters
-- Characters you can root for
-- Books with unanticipated (but not gimmicky/twisty) climaxes
So, maybe it’s not such a surprise that I enjoyed this book.
This book will win awards. And it will be made into a movie. Mark my words.
on May 12, 2014
Storylines dismissed as shopworn have a funny way of becoming fresh and thrilling in the hands of a literary master. And what historical event has been used as the backdrop for more works of literature in the past 70 years than World War II? The possibility that citizens of Allied nations could have fallen in love with, or seen the innate goodness in, subjects of the Third Reich is not new. Books such as SUMMER OF MY GERMAN SOLDIER have chronicled the experiences of children whose innocence allowed them to see qualities that others could not. You’d think that, by now, every story imaginable about the rise of National Socialism had been told already.
Which is what makes ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE, Anthony Doerr’s new novel, such a revelation. Doerr is known mainly for his short stories, most notably 2010’s MEMORY WALL. In his latest book, he shows greater comfort with the demands of novel writing than he has heretofore demonstrated. And he has found an original way of telling a story we’ve heard countless times before.
The novel, most of which takes place between 1934 and 1944, is the story of two children, one French and one German. The first, Marie-Laure LeBlanc, lives in Paris with her father, the master locksmith of the city’s Muséum National d’Historie Naturelle. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes on a tour with other children and, at the end, asks the guide about the one part of the museum he didn’t show them: the contents behind a locked iron door. He tells them the legend of the jewel kept within, a 133-carat stone known as the Sea of Flames. The stone has a curse: The owner lives forever, but bad luck befalls everyone else. One month later, an illness robs Marie-Laure of her sight.
Her father cares for her and builds a wooden model of their neighborhood so that she can study it and learn to navigate the streets on her own. He buys books written in Braille, one of which, 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, becomes one of her favorites. In 1940, Marie-Laure and her father escape Paris for the walled city of Saint-Malo to live with her great-uncle Etienne, a hermit who is emotionally scarred from World War I. Marie-Laure is unaware that her father has brought with them a stone that may or may not be the Sea of Flames. Three fakes have been made, and no one knows which is which.
In Germany, Werner Pfennig is growing up in a mining-town orphanage with his younger sister, Jutta. As Werner grows up, he shows an aptitude for building and repairing radios. Among the broadcasts he and Jutta enjoy listening to on a set he repairs are lectures by a French science professor.
One day, teenage Werner is summoned to the quarters of Herr Siedler, a German officer, to fix the officer’s radio. Siedler is grateful to the boy and arranges for him to attend the prestigious National Political Institutes of Education in Essen --- a training ground for Hitler Youth. Werner’s science skills so impress his teachers that he is recruited to help the Wehrmacht track down sites of illegal transmissions. At first, he is enthusiastic about the assignment, but the sight of a murdered child at a location he helps uncover reveals to him the horror of the German campaign. His belief in the Nazi cause is all but gone when, two months after the Normandy invasion, his unit is told to locate and destroy the source of transmissions coming from Saint-Malo, the “final German strongpoint on the Breton coast.”
ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE consists of short chapters, most of them fewer than five pages, the collective impact of which is devastating as Marie-Laure’s and Werner’s stories converge. The book’s title gives you a sense of Doerr’s style: formal and elegant, direct yet poetic. He writes gorgeous sentences: “A foot of steel looks as if it has been transformed into warm butter and gouged by the fingers of a child,” “From outside comes a light tinkling, fragments of glass, perhaps, falling into the streets. It sounds both beautiful and strange, as though gemstones were raining from the sky.” But the greatest achievement of this book is that, unlike many similar works, Doerr emphasizes his protagonists’ capacity for kindness. Of all the brightnesses we can’t or don’t allow ourselves to see, the capacity for goodness in the face of evil is the brightest of all.
Reviewed by Michael Magras.
on May 8, 2015
So why bother adding a review to the thousands already posted for a book that has received hype, buckets of praise, and an award? Just another grain of sand among the literary dunes…
I’m happy I was nearly three-fourths finished with this book before the announcement appeared that it had won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. As a rule I am quite wary of Books that Win Prestigious Awards, since said awards are handed out by August Doyens of Literature who are all too often entranced by pages of obscure words, tortured, convoluted plots and characters, and decidedly odd literary conventions at the expense of solid, well-written, straightforward storytelling populated by reasonably normal folks readers can actually like. And there were all those positive four- and five-star reviews from readers—more than 8,000 of them!—who obviously don’t share either my hesitancy or my cynicism. Nevertheless, if this book had already won the Pulitzer, I wouldn’t have read it. But it hadn’t, and I read it.
Folks, this book has quite a bit going for it. The story, the bare bones of it, recounting the separate, disparate, and then briefly entwined lives of a blind French girl and an orphaned German boy before and during World War Two, is both fascinating and well-realized. The characters, Marie-Laure LeBlanc and Werner Pfennig, have their moments throughout the novel, and each of them in turn is often endearing, frustrating, and incomprehensible. There are also a few secondary characters—Etienne LeBlanc, Madame Manec, Frederick and Volkheimer, even the slithery and noxious von Rumpfel—who who manage to hold their own, even in the somewhat attenuated roles they were given. The descriptions of Paris and the Breton town of Saint-Malo are spot on, with nary a false note. The description of the lesser-known mining city of Zollverein is uniformly grim, grey, and depressing, only a level or two above the appalling conditions of Werner’s school, or his life in the Werhmacht. The writing overall has a wealth of moments of lyrical beauty, even when it describes horrendous conditions, and it provides some sentences and phrases worthy of highlighting when speaking about either Marie-Laure or Werner, or the snails and mollusks that come to mean so much to Marie-Laure in the absence of her father. I can certainly see how the exquisite use of language captivated the Pulitzer folks.
But language alone cannot keep a novel afloat through the shoals and reefs and high rollers threatening to ink it. Language, no matter how luminous, cannot rescue a plot that has gaps in it, holes that are never filled, and that often makes little distinction between scenes that actually contribute, and those that are little more than window dressing. Language presented in a sinuous and elegant stream cannot smooth out an awkward construct that gives us chapters of two to three pages each that switch between Marie-Laure and Werner, between the protagonists and the occasional secondary character, all with enough rapidity to give the reader whiplash, the same as if one were watching a particularly invigorating volley at Wimbledon. It is entirely possible that the plethora of amazingly brief chapters is a logical result of the author’s previous work, which was predominantly short stories. So here we have short chapters. Not such a good idea, in this instance.
And it’s this point of view switch across several different time periods that is the novel’s biggest—and perhaps only—flaw, in my opinion. I can’t identify with a character when I see her in snippets, a bit here, another bit much later, when other characters separate these snippets and I lose my connectivity with the original character. It serves no purpose, I think, to begin at the end, as it were, then regress to the beginning, maintain that narrative flow in short, frustrating bursts of information, fast-forward to the end, and turn back to the middle. It makes little difference that the sections are clearly dated—the fact remains that this time travel, as it were, seriously distracted my relationship with Marie-Laure and Werner, and pulled me right out of the novel every time it happened, required some effort to get back into the story. There may have been some wonderfully creative reason for this arcane literary device, but I am afraid my more proletarian reading tastes didn’t think much of it. Obviously the more urbane literati awarding the Pulitzer disagreed with me, and that is to be expected.
Some reviewers apparently disliked the ending, but I admit that is one aspect with which I had no issues. To me it seemed not only appropriate but also fitting, low-key, almost unemotional and inevitable. The tying up of the various strands were not dramatic, either, but logical, expected, and, I think, quite satisfying.
With so many positive reviews, and a prestigious award, I probably should have reconsidered my opinion. But my opinion, after all, is worth no more—and no less—than any other reader’s view of this novel. What I see here is a missed opportunity to have created something wonderful, without doubt, without a dissenting view, had the book been a little more chronological, perhaps, allowing me to spend more time with characters that were unique and worthwhile by anyone’s standards.
Should you read it? Of course, without a doubt, because it is definitely worth a read, and my reservations may well not be yours. It’s a page-turner, that’s for sure, even if for no other reason than to see how it ends.
on February 3, 2015
I am having trouble understanding why this book is so highly lauded. After I turned the last page of the novel, I was distinctly underwhelmed. I recall thinking: "Is that all there is"? Although things happened in this book, in the end, nothing really "happened". I have read other novels in the WW2-era that had much more story, more plot. I was not looking for "all action, all the time" but here, we jump from snippets of chapters, but without much purpose. The author could have easily chopped off a few chapters and I don't think anything would have been lost, story-wise.
I am glad though, that we had an epilogue of sorts and see what has happened to Marie-Laure, Jutta, Frederick etc. as that is something I really like reading in novels not set in the present time.
I think too, that my disappointment with this novel stems from the fact that it IS so highly praised. Perhaps I was expecting too much from this critical darling. I would not advocate people to forego this novel, but I will caution that readers should temper their expectations.
on July 4, 2014
This may be the best novel I have ever read (and being a binge-reader, I've read many hundreds). As others have noted, All The Light We Cannot See speaks to the senses in a way that creates a living world for the reader. And though at times that world can be unbearable, it can also be sublime. We come to love the unlikely protagonists for the beauty of their souls and for their flaws. I was left with feelings of deep sadness for the misery and constant loss that define our human condition, joy for the transforming power of love, and a comforting sense of being a part of the vastness and depth of human experience. The final chapter contains a beautifully understated message of hope for all of us who often feel that we are wandering in the dark.
on November 10, 2014
I realize that I am in the minority here, but here goes:
The good: Doerr is a great writer. He has the ability to draw any reader into complete suspense. He uses hundreds of colorful metaphores--and has a way (as most good authors do) to describe feelings so vividly that you feel you are experiencing them yourself. There is great character developement in two beautiful characters: Werner and Marie Laure--characters that you empathize, share sorrow with, and root for the entire book. I even liked the short chapters as it kept me reading.
The bad: The two main characters are together for less then 10 pages. The ending had no resolution--and left me thinking:"so.........--what was the point?" I read all of this for literally no closure. Also the story was altogether too dark and left without any real redemption or hope for the reader. Hence the two stars.