Novel: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Published: May 6th 2014 by Scribner
Genre: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4/5 stars
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Synopsis: Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. 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, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments, a talent that wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then a special assignment to track the resistance. More and more aware of the human cost of his intelligence, Werner travels through the heart of the war and, finally, into Saint-Malo, where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge.
I’m having mixed feelings about this book, even as I’m writing this. When I saw it on Netgalley and requested it, I never thought I’d get approved. So when I did, I couldn’t contain my happiness. Why? Because this book has been receiving praise everywhere. I don’t just mean on the blogosphere. It even won a Pulitzer Prize. And don’t get me wrong, I really really liked this book. It has so much going for it. But I don’t seem to love it AS much as everyone else does? Let’s just get into the review.
This book spans over several years, starting with Marie-Laure learning how to navigate her neighborhood after turning blind, and ending decades later. This allows you to truly get to know the two main characters, Marie-Laure and Werner, as they grow up. While I loved the fact that the timeline often switched to a flash-forward, it caused some confusion at times. Not much, but still. I had to take a moment to think of where it left off.
This is a story about WWII, which I’m guessing you already knew. What this book does so well though, is highlight both sides of the war. You don’t just get the view of the Allied side. Often, novels about the World War are told through a person from France, the U.S., Great-Britain and so on. However in this novel, we have Marie-Laure, a French girl AND Werner, A German boy. That’s such a great addition to the story-line for me. I’ll talk more about that later when I’m focusing on the characters.
Overall, I was intrigued by the story. It unfolds beautifully, allowing you to follow both Marie-Laure’s and Werner’s path. Have you ever read a book, and had no idea which direction it was going to go in even though you were 50% in? I had that with this book. I was about 60% in, and had no clue what would happen next. I actually quite enjoyed it, as it makes the book far from predictable.
I have to admit though that I wasn’t fully engaged. I did want to keep reading and find out what happened, but I didn’t have that feeling of: I need to read this and drop everything else! Maybe I should’ve waited with reading it, as I read another WWII story last month. Maybe they were just too close together, making me compare them too much? I don’t know. Whatever the reason, I wasn’t as compelled by it.
Edit: It’s been a few hours now since I’ve finished it and I think I finally came up with a reason as to why I didn’t love it as much. I think I had different expectations of the story line. I was under a certain assumption I gathered from the synopsis (maybe misinterpreted) and because of that, I kept waiting and waiting for a certain moment to happen.
This is definitely my favorite part of the novel: the characters.
Let’s start with Marie-Laure. First of all, I want to say how much I admire her. I wanted to say how brave I found her to be, but then I thought of this quote (it’s not the entire quote, I left a sentence out at because it would be spoilery):
“When I lost my sight, Werner, people said I was brave. (…) But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don’t you do the same?”
That quote truly describes Marie-Laure. She is smart, curious, loves to read and is always learning. She has, with the help of her father, learned to live well with her blindness. It actually makes her more observant than others. She knows the streets, the houses, the city inside-out. It’s truly amazing. As I said before, Marie-Laure is French. Her perspective shows you the life of a girl, fleeing from her city and living under the German oppression.
Then there is Werner. Werner is an orphan, and in the beginning of the book he lives in an orphanage with his sister, Jutta. He has always been intrigued by science. This leads him to be in the Hitler Youth, where he makes radios and so on. I don’t really want to say what he works on, because not only would I butcher the explanation, it is also something you have to discover for yourself.
I loved Werner as well. He does what he thinks is necessary to survive, like we all do. He longs to be swept up in the “one mind” of the children at Hitler Youth. But being a science-lover, he also asks a lot of questions. Just not out loud. His was such an interesting perspective! I don’t think I’ve ever read a book through the eyes of a boy trained in the Hitler Youth… The mindset, the belief and the fervor of those young boys, it astounds me. It is how Hitler managed his troops for so long. This one belief to gather them all (yes, I am aware that I almost compared Hitler to Sauron here).
The characters in this book really are amazing. They provide for such an interesting and eye-opening read. I do have to admit that I didn’t love the ending for all of them (including the side characters).
I think this is an incredible read. The characters provide such insight into growing up both in the Allied and Axis Powers. I was especially intrigued by Werner’s perspective, as I had never read through the eyes of a boy of the Hitler Youth. It’s a surprising story that will take you on a journey through different countries, while never letting you glance at the final destination.
While I did enjoy this book, and would definitely recommend it, I have to admit I didn’t love it as much as everyone else seems to. Maybe it was the flash-forwards at times, maybe it was the fact that I’ve read another book set in WWII last month. Whatever the reason, I wasn’t completely engaged. However, I did still highly enjoy it and would certainly recommend it!
“Stones are just stones and rain is just rain and misfortune is just bad luck.”