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Book Review: All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (5/5)

21 Dec

With how many World War II novels I’ve read lately, I put off reading this book. I didn’t think something different could be done. I didn’t think I could sill be surprised by an ear that has dominated the Historical Fiction market lately. I should have trusted that the Pulitzer Prize winner would be worth it, though. I wish I’d read this sooner.

Cover image via Goodreads

Cover image via Goodreads

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Summary from Goodreads:

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.

Marie-Laure is the last character I would expect to stare in a WWII novel and that was part of what made this novel so exceptional to me. Werner I could expect and understand, but Marie-Laure made this book for me. I went into the book thinking it would be all like Werner’s story, but adding in an alternating plot line kept me going. This isn’t to say I didn’t like Werner’s plot, it was just more of what I’d expected from the time period. I liked being surprised and learning about shells and museums and stones. It was a great addition and what really brought the story together for me. Talking about radios was unexpected as well. I liked something that was very applicable to the time but under-represented in history making such a dominant appearance int he novel.

I don’t know much about being blind, but I felt that the accommodations Marie-Laure had were ingenious. Counting storm drains and using strings to find her way were great ideas her father had. I liked her story and how she grew up: the struggles she had and parts of life that Werner went through that she missed out on. Werner’s story is one I was much more familiar with because of similar stories I’ve read and I wasn’t as impressed with him as a character. He seemed like another complacent Nazi Youth.

If it’s not obvious, I’ll say now that I loved Marie-Laure. She was so strong and insistent that she could do everything that needed to be done around the house. She did what she could for Etienne after Madame Manec passed and did things he couldn’t do himself. Her father helped her as much as he could, but he still made sure she was self-sufficient. I liked the ending because it showed what she was capable of.

It’s hard to grow up in a confusing time. The 9/11 attacks happened when I was 11 so the confusion and war of my time are the War on Terror. There have been times I felt scared to leave my house and times when I had to be brave. Flying in November 2001 scared the pants off of me. It’s not the same as having bombs falling around your house and your father missing, but I can understand how Marie-Laure felt afraid of what was going on around her without being able to understand it. Things seemed to happen for no reason.

Anthony Doerr Image via The New York Times

Anthony Doerr
Image via The New York Times

I thought the last parts of the book were beautiful. From the time Marie-Laure and Werner met to the end, I was enchanted (and thankfully needed to spend one and a half hours in the car). The story wrapped up in a way I wasn’t expecting which is so rewarding as a reader! I hate coming to the end of a book and I can figure out how it’s going to end. I was surprised and excited the whole way through.

I thought there was a small drag in the middle when Marie-Laure was waiting for her father to come home and Werner was in school. The intense action of the beginning and end of the book ebbed then. I think it was covered well with flashbacks and von Rumpel’s story, though, and I didn’t lose my interest.

My edition was narrated by Zach Appelman and I thought he did well. He kept the suspense up when it needed to be and had a good voice for female characters. He didn’t do very much vocal changes for characters as I’ve experienced in other narrators, but I liked that in this book. The plot and narrator were fluid so there would have needed to be a lot of different inflections to have one per character. It would have been too much. I like Appelman’s decision to do this sparingly.

I’ve seen a lot in books lately about how much our lives intertwine with those of others and how this begins before we are aware of it and can change our lives forever. Marie-Laure and Werner met for such a short time, but he saved her life twice. The ways he did it developed when he was very young and first heard her grandfather on the radio. She didn’t know he existed for years. No one he loved knew how he died, his life ended after saving Marie-Laure’s. Was that his purpose in life? Once he’d fulfilled it, was there nothing left for him to do? If that’s so, what was the great thing she accomplished that was worth Werner’s life? I’m not sure I can think this way about the book, but it’s things that it made me think of.

Writer’s Takeaway: Writing multiple points of view is very hard. I’m trying to do it in my 1920s YA book. Both characters are the star, one cannot be favored over the other and they have to be very different people. Doerr did a great job with this in Werner and Marie-Laure. I admire his balance in their stories though I’m not brave enough to bring in a von Rumpel to push them together! That’s another person I’m not ready to write.

I really enjoyed the plot, story, and characters when I wasn’t expecting to. 5 our of 5 stars.

Until next time, write on.

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