All the Light We Cannot See: A Novel

by Anthony Doerr

Paperback, 2017

Status

Available

Genres

Publication

Scribner (2017), Edition: Reprint, 544 pages

Description

"From the highly acclaimed, multiple award-winning Anthony Doerr, a stunningly ambitious and beautiful novel about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II. Marie Laure lives with her father in Paris within walking distance of the Museum of Natural History where he works as the master of the locks (there are thousands of locks in the museum). When she is six, she goes blind, and her father builds her a model of their neighborhood, every house, every manhole, so she can memorize it with her fingers and navigate the real streets with her feet and cane. When the Germans occupy Paris, father and daughter flee to Saint-Malo on the Brittany coast, where Marie-Laure's agoraphobic great uncle lives in a tall, narrow house by the sea wall. In another world in Germany, an orphan boy, Werner, grows up with his younger sister, Jutta, both enchanted by a crude radio Werner finds. He becomes a master at building and fixing radios, a talent that wins him a place at an elite and brutal military academy and, ultimately, makes him a highly specialized tracker of the Resistance. Werner travels through the heart of Hitler Youth to the far-flung outskirts of Russia, and finally into Saint-Malo, where his path converges with Marie-Laure. Doerr's gorgeous combination of soaring imagination with observation is electric. Deftly interweaving the lives of Marie-Laure and Werner, Doerr illuminates the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another. Ten years in the writing, All the Light We Cannot See is his most ambitious and dazzling work"--Provided by publisher.… (more)

Media reviews

What really makes a book of the summer is when we surprise ourselves. It’s not just about being fascinated by a book. It’s about being fascinated by the fact that we’re fascinated. The odds: 2-1 All the Light We Cannot See Anthony Doerr Pros: Blind daughter of a locksmith meets reluctant Nazi engineering whiz! What more do you want? Cons: Complex, lyrical historical fiction may not have the necessary mass appeal.
4 more
“All the Light We Cannot See” is more than a thriller and less than great literature. As such, it is what the English would call “a good read.” Maybe Doerr could write great literature if he really tried. I would be happy if he did.
I’m not sure I will read a better novel this year than Anthony ­Doerr’s “All the Light We Cannot See.”
By the time the narrative finds Marie-Laure and Werner in the same German-occupied village in Brittany, a reader’s skepticism has been absolutely flattened by this novel’s ability to show that the improbable doesn’t just occur, it is the grace that allows us to survive the probable.
Werner’s experience at the school is only one of the many trials through which Mr. Doerr puts his characters in this surprisingly fresh and enveloping book. What’s unexpected about its impact is that the novel does not regard Europeans’ wartime experience in a new way. Instead, Mr. Doerr’s nuanced approach concentrates on the choices his characters make and on the souls that have been lost, both living and dead.

User reviews

LibraryThing member brenzi
You know the kind of book: you get to the end of it, and you want to go back to the beginning and start over again? Uh-huh, that’s what I’m talking about. Anthony Doerr may have written the best book I will read this year. And the thing is, I finished it a few days ago and I can’t stop thinking about it and as time passes I can’t get over how wonderful, rich and satisfying this story is.

"So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?"

Marie Laure LeBlanc is a blind twelve-year-old girl living in Paris with her father, the master of the locks at the Museum of Natural History, when the Germans seize control and begin their occupation of the country in 1940. They are forced to evacuate and make their way to her great uncle’s home in the sea side village of Saint-Malo. Her father carries with him the museum’s most prized and dangerous gem. He tries to make the world smaller for Marie Laure by building her a model, an exact replica of the town and by creating wooden puzzles for her to twist, turn and eventually crack open to reveal the surprise inside. (More about that in a bit.) Her natural curiosity and intelligence are fueled by her love for her father. And little by little she makes her way through Jules Vern’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

At the same time, in a German mining town three hundred miles northeast of Paris, seven-year-old orphan Werner Pfennig and his younger sister Jutta, are raised at Children’s House by the indomitable Frau Elena. In the land of ‘make-do’ she performs tiny miracles every day to keep her young charges healthy and productive. But Werner is an extremely bright and inquisitive child, and his interest in short wave radios and their transmissions allow him and Jutta to hear a Frenchman, talking about science. They are enthralled. At the same time Werner comes to the attention of authorities and that leads to his acceptance in the exclusive and brutal Hitler Youth Academy and eventually to the tracing of illegal radio transmissions for the Wehrmacht.

Doerr constructs his narrative in such a user friendly way that the pages flip effortlessly, each chapter only a page or two long, so that the 530 page book seems much, much shorter. As I read I was overcome by the beauty of the language and the intricate way Doerr allowed me to twist the puzzle that was the story’s plot, time and again, to reveal the surprise. Back and forth in time he led me until finally Marie Laure’s thread and Werner’s thread meet in August, 1944. Saint-Malo is fully occupied by the Germans but the allies are bombing the town and she can hear a German sergeant-major in the bottom floor of her great uncle’s house, hunting for the precious thing she has kept safe for several years. Gradually the tension that has been building for hundreds of pages comes to a brutal climax. But it’s the denouement that had me holding my breath because this author brilliantly continues the story through 2014.
Clear the boards and make room for a wonderful addition to the WWII literature because this is a keeper and very highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member Whisper1
Rarely is there a book so well written as this. The crisp, clear images jump off the page into your heart. This is well deserving of the honors received. It is so beautiful that it is difficult to write a review that would do justice.

The setting is World War II. Marie Laurie is young and blind. When Paris is overtaken by the Germans, she and her father flee to a walled in city and are housed with her uncle. The uncle is a neurotic recluse who never leaves the house, he is paralyzed by his memories. Her father was the keeper and maker of the keys at a natural history museum in Paris. When he flees, he takes with him a very rare jem. Three duplicate like jems are sent out of the museum. Each person carrying the jem has no knowledge of the validity of what they hold.

Enter the Nazi's, bent on finding the exquisite diamond, hunting down and imprisoning Marie Laurie's father. The builder of tiny cities for Marie Laurie, when he is forced to leave her, he hides the rare diamond inside a tiny replicate of the city.

With the background of the ever powerful Nazi regime, we learn in alternate chapters that a small boy, Werner, who is very talented in fixing radios, is forced into a Nazi training school for boys.

It is through the two children we feel the ever encroaching, invasively dangerous Nazi's who destroy all in their path. The beauty of the writing allows the reader to feel the panic of Werner as he watches the barbarity of actions performed at the expense of the boys who reside in the camp, and then, as Werner assists the Nazi's with radio transmissions to hunt down those they deem a potential threat.

As Marie Claire longs for news of her father, through her feelings and thoughts we learn of bombings, fire and the ability of the Nazi's to threaten and terrorize through intimidation. Slowly, with the stealth of a python snake, the Nazi's find their prey and slowly, at their will, squeeze and take breath, and life.

The book is three tiered, beginning with the treat of Nazi invasion, the actual invasion which strips people of their livelihood, their sanity and thiet lives, then the final chapters we watch as Hitler can no longer win and we see the desperation as all is crumbling away. As Hitler falls, those who remain are left to rebuild their lives.

Powerful in rendering emotion, location and the desperate need to live and hope that loved ones are still alive, this is a story that will remain long after the last word is read.

Excellent!!! FIVE STARS
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LibraryThing member reva8
Marie-Laure is five when a curator of Museum of Natural History tells her class the story of the Sea of Flame: a cursed, red-hearted sea-blue diamond. In 1934, she is six when she goes completely blind. Her father builds her a small scale wooden model of their neighbourhood in Paris, teaches her to identify her route by lampposts and storm drains. They save, and each year buy her a massive Braille tome: Jules Verne is one her favourites. Meanwhile, the dogs of war bark: and across, in Germany, young albino orphan Werner Pfennig lies awake in the Children’s Home, listening to radio broadcasts about science and discovery from an unknown, French broadcaster, on the radio he built.

Werner wants to build radios, study science, do mathematics, and he finds himself in Hitler’s army, marching to France, using his skills to triangulate resistance radio networks. Marie-Laure leaves Paris, flees with her father, who was locksmith at the Museum, to the tiny island town of Saint-Malo, where her uncle in shell-shock after the first World War, lives up in his attic, surrounded by radios. Here, too, Marie-Laure’s father builds her a small scale model of the city. She’s sixteen when he rushes back to Paris on urgent request from the Museum. Werner marches on, wanting science and receiving blood: his friend Frederick reduced to catatonia, his sister Jutta surviving,but barely in the Home, in the cold, in the dark, on to Paris, to Saint-Malo.

This is a book that is at once easy, and difficult: easy, because Doerr never tries to incorporate or address anything that is larger than the lives, sorrows and emotions of the characters he builds. Nazism and the war are background: what is important is Werner’s lingering guilt, Marie-Laure’s feelings of being trapped inside the curfewed town of blackouts, her father’s fears, his sister’s anger. It is difficult for that same reason, because this book skims the surface, and does so in a style that is almost breathlessly sentimental. Every possible heartstring is wrung, but not for what Owen called “.. War, and the pity of War” but for Werner and Marie-Laure.

I loved Doerr’s neat depictions of the smallest characters and events: the housekeeper to Marie-Laure’s uncle and her fierce resistance to occupation, the German officer who pursued the Sea of Flames relentlessly, the small, interlocking puzzles that Marie-Laure’s father made for her every year, on her birthday, the off-tune singing of the lady who managed the children’s home that Werner grew up on. I do feel, though, that sentiment alone is insufficient: when you take away Doerr’s adjectives, there’s very little left beneath them.
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LibraryThing member hemlokgang
A very nice book. Standard metaphors, (i.e. the blind seeing the most), are used to find the light in the darkness of WWII and its well known atrocities. Stolen youths, orphaned children, love despite all odds, and the survival instinct are standard themes, written about with an elegant prose. However, I think that the converging storyline structure was not well implemented and became confusing along the way, probably because there was jumping not only between characters, but also back and forth in time. I must admit to being bored and that it bogged down for quite a while in the middle. So overall, very nice is the best I can muster for this very popular novel. This one will probably do better as a film than as a novel.… (more)
LibraryThing member cuentosalgernon
This novel is both a page-turner and an exquisite and well-written novel, something you don’t find too often. Throughout its over 500 pages it manages to engage you with its beautiful prose and imagination. It follows the story of Marie-Laure, a French blind girl, and Werner, a German orphan boy who loves gadgets, a story spanning from 1934 until the present, flipping back and forth in each chapter. And as the reader suspects from the beginning, the lives of the two main characters finally cross, and they will find out that in fact their lives had also intertwined in the past through some old radio broadcasts crucial in Werner’s life. And although the war is the background for most of the novel, the story focuses in the characters and manages to flesh them out, not only Marie-Laure and Werner, but also quite a few of the characters around them: Marie-Laures’ father and great-uncle, the housekeeper, the nazi von Rumpel obsessed with finding a precious diamond… And I particularly enjoyed the wonderful use of Jules Verne’s novel “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea”.
This is the first book I’ve read by Anthony Doerr, but after the rewarding experience I’m looking forward to reading some more.
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LibraryThing member lit_chick
2014, Simon and Schuster Audio, Read by Zach Appleman

“You know the greatest lesson of history? It's that history is whatever the victors say it is. That's the lesson. Whoever wins, that's who decides the history.” (Ch 30)

Young Marie-Laure, who lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History where he works, goes blind when she is six, and her papa builds her a perfect miniature of their neighbourhood so she can memorize it and navigate her way home independently. When she is twelve and the Nazis occupy Paris, father and daughter flee to Saint-Malo, where they will live with Etienne, her reclusive great uncle. With them, they carry with them what might be the museum’s most valuable – and most dangerous – jewel.

In a mining town in Germany, Werner grows up with his younger sister, both orphans. He finds and is enchanted with a crude radio he finds, and will later become an expert at building and repairing the instruments – a talent which secures him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth. Participating in special assignments to track the resistance, Werner becomes increasingly aware of the human cost of his intelligence. Eventually, he will travel to Saint-Malo on assignment, where his story and Marie-Laure’s will converge.

All the Light We Cannot See is a remarkable read: as haunting and stark in its portrayal of the human costs of war, as it is beautiful in its portrayal of intimate relationships. I highly recommend!
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LibraryThing member ursula
The author interweaves two people's lives, Werner (a German orphan) and Marie-Laure (a blind French girl), in this novel. From the first chapter, where we find both characters in the same German-occupied city in France under bombing by the Allies, we know that they will have some sort of interaction with each other. Doerr then takes us back into each of their earlier lives and leads us back to that point of intersection, and beyond.

I think that based on story alone, this could have been a 5-star read for me. Unfortunately, it wasn't. I thought the writing was studied and overly-polished, which had me focusing more on that than the story. Partially this happened because I was extremely bored by the first third of the book. I understand the reasons for wanting to go back in time and give full portraits of both Marie-Laure and Werner, but I found it mostly tedious, particularly the chapters about Werner. He just wasn't very interesting to me, and I didn't feel like he came alive as a child. Marie-Laure's blindness was handled well, showing both her capacity for self-assurance and the unique vulnerabilities she had. The exact resolution of the story kept me guessing, which was nice.

It was definitely a real page-turner once I got past the boring beginning. However, I had to knock down the rating for that because even though it got a lot better, I found the beginning *very* yawn-inducing, to the point that I considered abandoning the book entirely.

Recommended for: fans of the slow burn, sentimental types, people who like the movie Titanic.

Quote: "Radio: it ties a million ears to a single mouth."
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LibraryThing member Cariola
I have to admit that it took me a long, long time to engage with this novel. The first half is incredibly slow-moving, and, while I did end up liking the book, it could have had the same effect if it had been about 150 pages shorter. In addition, while I love stories with multiple narrators, the use of multiple narrators AND switching back and forth in time made it unnecessarily convoluted. On the basis of comments from LT friends who said the book got much better after the first half or so, I stuck it out to the end. While I can't say that All the Light We Cannot See will be one of my top reads of the year, on the whole, I was glad that I stayed with it.

The novel's two main characters are Werner, a German orphan with a talent for radio electronics, and Marie-Laure, the blind daughter of a French museum's lock master, both of whom are about 13 years old when the chronological story begins. When Werner's aptitude is uncovered, he ids taken from the orphanage and his sister, Jutta) and placed in a Hitler Youth school where his talent will be developed for use in the war. Initially thrilled to have an opportunity better than working in the mines, Werner ignores the twinges of his conscience and follows all orders--even those that ultimately destroy his best friend.

When the Germans invade Paris, Marie-Laure and her father flee to the seaside town of Saint-Malo, where her reclusive great-uncle Etienne lives. Her father may carry with him the museum's most valuable jewel, a large diamond known as the Sea of Flames--or he may be carrying one of four replicas of the diamond. For me, the Saint-Malo chapters were the most engaging in the book, mainly because of the well-developed characters and relationships.

Into the mix comes a cancer-ridden German officer charged with finding and bringing back to Berlin the treasures of the France--including the Sea of Flames.

That's all I will say about the plot, aside from the fact that, as one would expect, these characters inevitably come face-to-face with one another. I might have rated this book a bit higher if my expectations had been a little lower, and if the exposition chapters hadn't been quite so plodding. Still, All the Light We Cannot See is a worthwhile and at times very moving book.
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LibraryThing member tututhefirst
From the publisher: Marie-Laure has been blind since the age of six. Her father builds a perfect miniature of their Paris neighbourhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. But when the Nazis invade, father and daughter flee with a dangerous secret. Werner is a German orphan, destined to labour in the same mine that claimed his father's life, until he discovers a knack for engineering. His talent wins him a place at a brutal military academy, but his way out of obscurity is built on suffering. At the same time, far away in a walled city by the sea, an old man discovers new worlds without ever setting foot outside his home. But all around him, impending danger closes in. Doerr's combination of soaring imagination and meticulous observation is electric, as Europe is engulfed by war and lives collide unpredictably.

Here is a war story told from the perspective of two young people - almost too young to be directly involved when the war begins. The blind french girl is on the one hand so dependent on others to show her the way -- at least until she memorizes the way on her own; the young German is so determined not to have to go down into the dark, claustrophic bowels of the earth as the miner his father did. He'll do anything to avoid that darkness.

Each is dealing with darkness from a different standpoint: he is trying to avoid darkness, and she is doomed to live within it. Both of them find light and life from music and from sound. She is evacuated to St Malo where she lives with an uncle who, although a recluse, is building and hiding radios. The German boy too, displays an expertise in building and operating radios, and eventually is rescued from having to go to the mines.

Doerr tells their stories, along with several auxiliary plot lines, in alternate chapters from each youth's point of view. The story is easy to follow, the tension builds quickly, and the inexorable march toward the inevitable makes this a true page turner.

In my case, I was able to "read" this book the same way Marie-Laure would have -- with my ears. The audio version, produced by Simon and Schuster, and and narrated by Zach Appelman, really enables the reader to experience life exactly as young Marie-Laure did. The descriptions of how she "saw" things, how she counted her steps, listened for creaking boards, and was able to tune into radio broadcasts was well portrayed, and perfect for the audio format. I am especially thankful that the producers did not attempt to articulate sounds Marie-Laure heard in her head. It was left to the reader's imagination to furnish that sensory experience.

I don't want to give away the ending of the story. It is realistic, beautiful, heart-rending. This is a book worth reading in any format. It's certainly the best 2014 Fiction I've read so far this year… (more)
LibraryThing member neddludd
Possibly the most damning review of a book is to walk away from it before finishing. In this work, I made it to page 377 (of 530). Two factors induced me to cease reading. The book is incredibly repetitive; one wonders if the author is not trying to illuminate the predictable and ultimately boring functions we engage in day after day. The work is suffused with extreme gloom, as if it had a fatal disease. Each of the character's has their own cross to bear, and each must bear the load throughout the entire book--or at least until where I stopped caring. The randomness and brutality of the war engulfs all; but so does the First World War to a man who has become so fearful that he cannot leave his room. Another character is blind, while a third has an unexplained cancer. Readers glimpse the potential of these men and women, and watch as that potential is wasted in the evil that is the world at war. The occupation of France endured for four years, and readers feel as if they spent every day there. The Russian front is telescoped but is the scene of death after death after death. The main characters have no one with whom to communicate other than the readers, and it becomes tiresome and heavy lifting. The quality of the writing is fine; but even that annoys, since we experience scene after scene with only minor variations from prior encounters. I am unclear as to why this book was such a huge bestseller.… (more)
LibraryThing member dchaikin
ABANDONED

All the Light We Cannot See (Audio) by Anthony Doerr
read by Zach Appelman

2014, 16:03 (531 pages in hardcover)
listened to 48% from Dec 7-15

It felt really nice to give up on this book. Enough to make me want to thrash it, so I’ll preface this by saying a lot of readers really like this Pulitzer Prize winner.

As for the book, Doerr writes a very slow almost fairly tale story of a blind French girl with a love of Jules Verne and a young Nazi German soldier with an affection for experimenting with electronics, especially radios. Doerr is a pretty writer and fills in all his details. But I just couldn’t escape the impression that he merely created assortment of stereotypes in a very stereotypical story. He can add all the detail he wants, add all the texture he wants, but he’s only bringing into focus what we already knew before he started describing it. At least that is the sense he left me with and I couldn’t avoid thinking about it. I was bored and annoyed.
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LibraryThing member BookBarmy
This WWII blockbuster opens with two riveting story lines. Werner, an orphan German teen is recruited by the Nazi’s for his invaluable radio engineering skills, and Marie-Laure, a blind French girl – separated from her adoring father in war-torn France. Right from the beginning, the reader knows that the lives of these two potentially fascinating characters will intersect.

The novel also has some captivating scenes, all beautifully written. There’s Marie-Laure reading aloud from her braille edition of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, there’s the ominous agenda inside Werner’s exclusive Nazi training school, and then, if you’re like me, you’ll hold your breath as messages are passed along, hidden in freshly baked bread, and then secretly broadcast from a short-wave radio hidden in the attic of a crumbling house perched on the edge of the sea. Everything is there — all the elements of a well-written and exciting WWII adventure.

And so you settle in, cup of tea in hand and eagerly start reading…and reading…and reading — through 178 chapters. Yes, you read that right — 178 chapters!

Therein lies the first problem — 178 short chapters, many only a few pages, which jerk the reader back in forth in time, often with no clue to the year. The choppy chapters and abrupt time jumps are not only confusing, they actually prevented me from really sinking into the story. One reviewer, knowing that Mr. Doerr is a much better writer than this, surmised his editors insisted on shuffling the timeline. The format did feel gimmicky and like an afterthought. I’d go even further, I think those same editors also insisted on chopping the novel into short chapters to cater to today’s 140-character-tweet-text-snapchat-attention-span readers (That just wrote itself in the throes of my rant – like it?).

Now we come to the second problem, "All the Light We Cannot See" starts out beautifully written and compelling, but then it just seems to fall apart — rather it just never comes together. Werner’s and Marie-Laure’s paths, while coming teasingly close, never really converge. And when they do finally intertwine, they are only together for 10 pages towards the end. Then fast forward 30 years and the book ends not with a bang but with a whimper (my apologies to T. S. Eliot).

The novel won Pulitzer Prize, earned many glowing reviews and many weeks on the bestseller lists. Perhaps I missed something magical in my reading of this book. Maybe it was my mood. Whatever the reason, I was underwhelmed and sadly disappointed upon finishing this novel.
A digital review copy was provided by Scribner via NetGalley.
See all my book reviews at BookBarmydotcom.

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LibraryThing member jmchshannon
The historical details within All the Light We Cannot See are stunning in their exactness and the care with which Mr. Doerr uses them within his story. One could use the story in place of a map of Paris’ Fifth Arrondissement or the streets of Saint Malo because they are so meticulously described and precise. Similarly, Mr. Doerr develops his characters so carefully and thoroughly that readers internalize their emotions. The growing mental trauma within Werner and Marie-Laure’s increased fears are particularly potent as the story progresses even though these changes occur slowly. However, this care and attention to detail makes the entire cast so realistic. Of greatest importance though is the fact that Mr. Doerr is mindful not to make this a story a condemnation of one side or the other. All of the characters, no matter how important or minor, are just victims of the circumstances and times in which they live.

In All the Light We Cannot See, Mr. Doerr takes his time telling Marie-Laure’s and Werner’s stories. They unfold slowly and methodically, carefully building setting, mood, and tone to weave the story around readers and fully ensnare them into its drama and tension, something he achieves with aplomb. Marie-Laure and Werner are two unfortunate souls who are tested and forged in the heat of war. Theirs is a powerful story in which the lines of right and wrong, guilt and innocence blur as readers get to know and understand them. All the Light We Cannot See is a story of perseverance, innocence lost, strengths found, and truths discovered. It leaves readers contemplative as to the intricacies and damage to mind, body, and soul war wreaks on people. More importantly, it leaves readers hopeful that even in the very worst of times, humanity’s innate goodness can and will prevail.
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LibraryThing member mtbearded1
Having spent a great deal of time earning a PhD in 20th Century French Literature, a study that thrust me deeply into the politics of World War II France, I have trouble passing up any book that treats that period. I have met some of my favorite authors that way, Joanne Harris's Five Quarters of the Orange comes to mind. In All The Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr joins the group. This is a powerful novel, grabbing this reader's attention from the first and holding it all the way through the rather long novel. Not that it feels like a long novel, but it is a heavy book to hold for hours on end. The story of two children, a young German orphan and the blind daughter of a Parisian museum employee, travels back and forth across time and space as their individual stories develop, and eventually intertwine. The horror that was occupied France is fully present in this novel, but Doerr also makes us see that sometimes the Germans were victims as well. How can a country press its fifteen year old boys into military service? Heartily recommended to all who are drawn to World War II narratives, and to the awakening of young minds.… (more)
LibraryThing member oldblack
I decided to read this because (a) my boss recommended it, (b) it had a 4.3 star rating in LT. It just goes to show how different my tastes are than the average LT reader (and my boss!). I see no particular merit in this story, apart from the fact that it took me away from a mundane environment as I walked to work - for 15 hours. Obviously I had the audiobook version - and I had a few problems with the narrator, too. She was good at dramatising the text, and probably had a good French accent (I'm ignorant), but she spoke some English words in some pretty unusual ways! ("wrongly" I would have said, but I am not really confident enough of my own knowledge to be so bold as to say that). This seemed just like another war story to me (aren't we over that?), but with a rather hard to believe story & legend about a large gem added on top. Oh yes, and the blind girl factor - I'm guessing that's what appealed to the LT readers? I would have to say, however, that none of the characters was particularly well developed - this is almost entirely a plot-driven novel. And I'm more of a character person than a plot person. I like books about which others complain that the story doesn't go anywhere. I suppose the other possibly appealing aspect of this book is the way the author runs parallel stories and approaches the conclusion from different times in a way that reveals the story at an appropriate pace and with suitable mystery. The story is tied up at the end in a way that is probably appropriate to the rest of the book but I'm sure is also one reason for its high rating - people tend to hate stories having anything left unknown.… (more)
LibraryThing member RandyMetcalfe
Marie-Laure is the young, blind daughter of the Master of Locks at the Museum of Natural History in pre-WWII Paris. Werner is an orphan growing up in a mining town in Germany. About 500 pages later their paths are going to cross in St. Malo on the coast of France. Meanwhile there are miles to go, so to speak, and lots of twists. But the pages will turn, and quickly. So quickly that you’ll be surprised at how you’ve been swept along and swept up in the all too evident emotions of that most dangerous time.

In its tone and tenor, this is really a YA novel. So it may be a bit surprising that it won the Pulitzer. It is written in a clear filmic style — short, one scene, chapters of about a page and a half in length. Then a quick cut to another character’s point of view. The tension remains high throughout. And you really can’t get bored. There isn’t time. But it is so self-consciously filmic — almost like it is really a “treatment” for a film, preferably directed by Spielberg — that you may find it tiring.

Of course just because this is a YA novel doesn’t mean that bad things don’t happen. They do. And some of them are truly awful. But awful in a way that would really look good in a cinema. (That’s maybe too harsh; they would also look good on TV.) I longed for more seriousness, less contrivance of plot, less blatantly heart-tugging characters. But I suppose that would simply have been a different book. And the author would be in his rights to suggest that I ought to go read that one instead. Perhaps I will. And maybe you’ll join me. Because for now, despite the accolades, this one is not recommended.
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LibraryThing member Schmerguls
Since I have read all the fiction which has won the Pulitzer prize I read this with much anticipation and found it absorbing reading. The story of a blind French girl and a German boy caught up in the evil of Nazidom, the account (told, I thought unfortunately, non-chronologically) in short chapters is rivetingly readable. The denouement, while not what my simple soul hoped for, is, I felt after reading it, satisfactory.… (more)
LibraryThing member TooBusyReading
When I thought the world didn't need any more WWII novels about loss and survivors, when I thought all that should be said had been said, along came this beautiful book.

The writing and the characters are wonderful and had depth. I even had sympathy for a young German soldier, seeing the world through his eyes. I couldn't see the world through Marie-Laure's eyes because she was blind, but her descriptions of sounds, of what she noticed that most of us do not, was lyrical.

There are orphans and good fathers, traitors, and a whole cast of characters that were occasionally hard to keep straight, but the payback was well worth the effort. Lives intersected, souls were bared, and bits of natural history added another interesting layer as did descriptions of city models.
Among other story lines, this is a story of a father's love for his daughter.

Yet another war story, but this one managed to put itself head and shoulders above so many others.
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LibraryThing member Schatje
With its examination of what war does to ordinary people, especially two children, this book has some heartbreaking scenes, but it is entirely absorbing, a wondrous read. In alternating chapters, the novel focuses on Werner Pfenning, a German orphan, and Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a blind girl living in Paris.

Werner is a science prodigy who proves especially gifted in his understanding of electrical circuits. This gift allows him to escape life in the coal mines and gets him into an elite Nazi school where he receives military training and advances his knowledge of radio mechanics. He becomes adept at finding the senders of illegal radio transmissions and so is sent by German army hierarchy to various parts of Europe, eventually arriving in St. Malo shortly after the D-Day invasions just as the siege of the town begins.

Marie-Laure is also a science prodigy of sorts; she becomes fascinated by marine life after being exposed to the displays at the Museum of Natural History where her father works and to books such as Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Charles Darwin’s Voyage of The Beagle. In 1940 when the Germans occupy Paris, she leaves the city with her father and travels to St. Malo to seek refuge with her great-uncle Etienne, a hermit suffering from shell shock from WWI. As he had done in Paris, Marie-Laure’s father builds a detailed scale model of St. Malo so she can learn to navigate the town which is her home for the duration of the war.

Anyone familiar with Nazi atrocities has asked him/herself how the German people could commit those acts. Werner’s story illustrates how many Germans had little choice. As an orphan he is destined for work in the coal mines, a fate he dreads since those mines claimed his father’s life. His intelligence wins him a coveted position at a school, but it becomes a hell of a different sort: “never has Werner felt part of something so single-minded” (139) where the boys are taught by a man “capable of severe and chronic violence” (168). There he is taught that, “’You will eat country and breathe nation’” (137). Werner is a curious boy who was first exposed to science through radio broadcasts from France and often recalls the broadcaster urging children to “Open your eyes . . . and see what you can with them before they close forever” (48). So “For Werner, doubts turn up regularly. Racial purity, political purity” (276). In the school, however, he is told that he must not question: “’minds are not to be trusted. Minds are always drifting toward ambiguity, toward questions, when what you really need is certainty. Purpose. Clarity. Do not trust your minds’” (263). The students are told, “’You will strip away your weakness . . . you will all surge in the same direction at the same pace toward the same cause’” (137) and are encouraged to identify the weakest amongst them for punishment or expulsion. Werner, above all else, fears being named the weakest and becoming one of “the old broken miners . . . waiting to die” (476), so he tries to forget his sister’s question, “’Is it right . . . to do something only because everyone else is doing it?’” (133), and does what he is told to do: “Werner laces his boots and sings the songs and marches the marches, acting less out of duty than out of a timeworn desire to be dutiful” (277). A friend summarizes Werner’s predicament: “’Your problem, Werner, . . . is that you still believe you own your life’” (223).

The characterization of Marie-Laure is equally interesting. She is shy but intelligent and never is she self-pitying. She has to learn to navigate through darkness, both literally and metaphorically, but does not let it circumscribe her existence; she is determined to conquer her fear and make a difference. She answers the question, “Don’t you want to be alive before you die?” (327) in the affirmative. One woman describes her as an “amazing child” (402) though Marie-Laure does not see herself that way: “’When I lost my sight, . . . people said I was brave. . . . But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life’” (469). Hers, like Werner’s, is a coming-of-age story in the most difficult of times. If there is a weakness in Marie-Laure’s characterization, it is that we see few flaws.

There are other characters that are either too good or too evil. Frederick, Werner’s friend at the school, is of the former category. Frederick “moves about as if in the grip of a dream . . . [his] eyes are both intense and vague” (184) and “He sees what other people don’t” (163). He is the one cadet who refuses to do as the commandant orders, his fate illustrating what happened to those who refused to behave like ostriches. Sergeant Major von Rumpel is of the latter category in that he has no redeeming qualities. In fulfilling his job, he is ruthless. He becomes the stereotype of a Nazi officer. To make matters worse, von Rumpel is involved in the search for a diamond, a sub-plot which is largely distracting and superfluous.

An element of the novel that deserves mention is the lyrical style employing numerous poetic devices and figures of speech. Alliteration is used: “Shearwaters skim the ramparts; sleeves of vapor enshroud the steeple” (409). Metaphors abound; bombs dropping are described as “A demonic horde. Upended sacks of beans. A hundred broken rosaries” (148). The occupation of St Malo is conveyed so effectively: “Silence is the fruit of the occupation; it hangs in branches, seeps from gutters. . . . So many windows are dark. It’s as if the city has become a library of books in an unknown language, the houses great shelves of illegible volumes, the lamps all extinguished” (347 – 348). Repetition such as “Fog on the sea, fog in the streets, fog in the mind” (288) describes setting, creates atmosphere, and reveals mood. Literary and Biblical allusions appear frequently, usually to develop theme: “’That which is far off, and exceeding deep, who can find it out?’” (449).

The novel’s title refers to one of the themes. In one of the children’s science broadcasts, Werner hears, “The brain is locked in total darkness. . . It floats in a clear liquid inside the skull, never in the light. And yet the world it constructs in the mind is full of light” (47). The brain has power to create light in darkness, and in the novel characters are occasionally able to see goodness even in the darkest of times, to believe “that goodness, more than anything else, is what lasts” (492). The school Werner attends tries to snuff out his human decency but in the end it is recognized that “his soul glowed with some fundamental kindness” (515).

As a child, Werner learns that “the electromagnetic spectrum runs to zero in one direction and infinity in the other, so really, . . . mathematically, all of light is invisible” (53). Later, “Marie-Laure imagines the electromagnetic waves . . . flying invisibly . . . over the scarred and ever-shifting landscapes we call nations. And is it so hard to believe that souls might also travel those paths? . . . That great shuttles of souls might fly about, faded but audible if you listen closely enough? . . . the air a library and the record of every life lived, every sentence spoken, every word transmitted still reverberating within it. Every hour, she thinks, someone for whom the war was memory falls out of the world” (528 – 529). In this novel, the reader, like Werner constantly listening to radio waves, can hear two of the stories stored in the library of invisible light around us.

Despite its weaknesses, this book is a must-read. It will have the reader experiencing a gamut of emotions: sadness, anger, joy. It is a beautifully written story about people caught in a time when “history has become some nightmare” (284) and people’s potential is misused: “What you could be” (459).
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LibraryThing member traumleben
A brilliantly written historical drama set in World War II that follows two main characters, a blind French girl and a talented German boy who gets swept up by the Reich. Doerr writes in a compact prose and builds the story, almost Monet-like, with precise, short strokes. He moves back and forth across the canvass of time, so you can see the story coming together as a whole throughout, rather than in a linear fashion. I won't give anything away, just read it!… (more)
LibraryThing member Limelite
Here is a novel that reminds us why fiction and literature are vital to humanity.

All the Light We Cannot See is a profound and poignant study of the tests, triumphs, and also the destruction of the human soul under grim persecution perpetrated by the Nazis. Most horrifying is to read how their indifferent brutality was applied alike to their own Aryan children as it was to their French enemies, and (to them) the insignificant Jews. Beneath the cruel heel of the hobnailed boot, Nazis indiscriminately crushed opposition, individuality, and independence real and imagined.

Overriding all, Doerr builds an atmosphere of ratcheting tension and impending doom followed by their inevitable realization that makes the reader want to turn away, avert the eyes. Even though the book is beautifully written, often lyrical, full of artistry when manipulating time and chronology, masterful in how ultra-short chapters are counterpoised against writing that slows down action to its minutest breath, it is primarily an important book that should and must be read.

At the end of the novel, years after the horror of war is over and as she is nearing the end of a long life, Marie-Laure muses while sitting on a Paris park bench next to her 12-year-old grandson. "Every hour, she thinks, someone for whom the war was memory falls out of the world."

Without books, without readers, thus we forget.
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LibraryThing member laytonwoman3rd
Luminous, intensely personal intersecting stories of a blind French girl who contributes in a small way to the Resistance with a secret radio, and a talented German orphan who has been trained to seek out just such transmissions. So many lovely passages in a book about the horrors and deprivations of WWII... Doerr put me in the moment brilliantly over and over again with descriptions of air, sound and light as well as more solid things like water, rock and metal. This is not about the "big picture", but rather about the thousands of small moments that make up life, even in the midst of earth-shattering events.
Review written in September, 2015
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LibraryThing member jamaicanmecrazy
What a beautiful and haunting story. The readers experience the tragedy of WWII through the eyes of a young German boy who is sent to be educated in an elite Nazi school. He sees the nefarious and depraved Nazis for who they are, but is rightfully afraid to challenge them and their twisted ideology. Like my favorite kinds of novels, this one weaves details and hints together just like a beautiful tapestry that is presented whole in the end. So much powerful prose! “Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.” This story will stay with me for a long, long time.… (more)
LibraryThing member chrisblocker
Stories centered around the second World War have become trite. Yeah, I said it, and that probably makes me an insensitive jerk in some way. But really, the story of WWII has been so rehashed and watered down that it is a huge surprise when an author paints the story in a different light than we've come to expect. Maybe that's not entirely true. There are many great accounts of WWII with only small amounts of propaganda sprinkled in. But there are so many Hollywood-style stories where the Germans are all heinous bastards and the allied forces are wonderfully perfect heroes who save the universe from the dark force in a style that rivals the best (or the worst, depending your perspective) epic space operas. Sprinkle in a Disney ending and you've got a bestseller.

Given my feelings toward WWII lit, it's not a surprise I had such polar sentiments when I learned of Doerr's latest novel. I really love Doerr's writing, but could he pull off such a novel without descending into the conventional western tale? Largely, I think he pulls it off. That's not to say that All the Light We Cannot See doesn't pull occasionally from the bag of Allied stock footage, but overall he makes the story real and original.

All the Light We Cannot See teeters a line of being over sentimental, but for me it never crossed that line. Maybe it did in the concluding chapters, but by that point I was a believer. Overall, Doerr was wise in deciding when to terminate a scene, when to let the reader feel without manipulation. Aside from the drama that may be too much for some readers, Doerr writes perfectly. The characters are distinct and memorable; I felt for them as though they were real and they'll stick with me for some time. The writing is lush and the scenery is painted so vividly that I feel as though I have visited these cities. The many different threads all come together in a way that is satisfying and logical. The story is told in such quick, alternating chapters that the novel never slogs despite its length. The pacing is near perfect and the story is riveting without becoming overly worked. And the use of objects—I love how masterfully Doerr utilizes objects throughout the story. If any writing instructor is looking for a novel to use for an objects-based lesson, I recommend this one. Oh, and the science broadcasts for children—did anyone else wish they could hear those broadcasts in their entirety? The voice was so perfect, the text so fascinating. If they do not already exist, someone needs to write scientific books for children told in that voice. (And if they do exist, someone let me know what they are.)

All the Light We Cannot See is going to be successful and I'm really happy for its author. 2014 has been a great year for literature (see also Mira Jacob's The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing, Cynthia Bond's Ruby, Karen Gettert Shoemaker's The Meaning of Names, as well as others I have yet to read), but Doerr's latest novel will likely be the most well-received and widely acknowledged of the year's literary choices. If you're one to read award winners and those “best of year” books, this one will be one to take note of now.
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LibraryThing member booklove2
A book that will probably win the Pulitzer seemed like it was aiming for the Pulitzer (but that begs the question: do writers write with the goal to win awards with every book they write?) To specify: this seemed to hit a lot of plot points to aim for awards, best seller status, or movie deals: orphans, blindness, war, cursed diamonds, cliffhangers, characters that are never too villainous even if they are technically Nazis. Both main characters are trying to get by in World War II: a French girl Marie-Laure who loses her sight at age six and escapes to Saint-Malo, a city on the sea surrounded by ramparts, an almost otherworldly place where all of the basements become flooded when the tide is high enough. The other main character, Werner, a German boy who must go to war, but seems fine with that as long as he doesn't have to go to the mines. He is talented with radios at an early age, which is lucky for him, as he is very uncomfortable and haunted hearing a friend's mother make an anti-Semitic comment. Yes, sometimes Germans had no choice in joining the Nazi party especially at such a young age, but Werner is a hero in this story because he hardly has to do anything wrong. He only operates the radios. Therefore, you can sympathize with Werner just as much as you can with Marie-Laure. It seems like both characters, no matter which side they are on, would need to make riskier moves to survive World War II. Really, it just seems like a pleasant story when Charles Dickens name is mentioned more than Hitler. The mention of Charles Dickens isn't a coincidence - the book remains very Dickensian. Marie-Laure's great-uncle is a tragic figure, losing a brother in World War I, never leaving his house in Saint-Malo until necessary in WWII. It's heartbreaking to realize the trauma of WWI made him an agoraphobic until WWII forced him to leave the house. The writing here is as pleasant as the decisions of the characters, but I had a problem with the story setup: the chapters skip between characters every couple of pages the entire book. For me, that doesn't allow me to delve into the book as well as I might have with longer chapters. It removes me from the story. The chapters are almost written like scenes in a movie (that this book was probably also aiming for). The story shows Werner and Marie-Laure's past while slowly catching up with the attack on Saint-Malo. In my opinion, I might have already read the best World War II fiction, the stunningly written 'The Tin Drum' by Gunter Grass. There is a question if reading really great books makes other books just okay, depending on which order you read them, and if that means opinions on books are constantly shifting. Maybe I would have enjoyed this book more if I hadn't yet read 'The Tin Drum'? I'd like to think that books can just stand on their own, represent themselves, but the best books seem to have a lasting affect on others. With just pleasant, not scrappy enough World War II characters and a distracting structure, this book can't be a favorite of mine.… (more)

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