By: Anthony Doerr
Marie-Laure lives in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where her father works. Blind from the age of six, she faces unique challenges during the Nazis occupation when she and her father must 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, Werner Pfennig, grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find that brings them news and stories from places they have never seen or imagined. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments and soon draws the attention of the Hitler youth. Deftly interweaving the lives of Marie-Laure and Werner, Doerr illuminates the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another.
Nearly 1.3 million people have given All the Light We Cannot See an average rating of 4.3 stars on Goodreads. The writing in this novel is simultaneously romantic and heartbreaking. I’ve never read from the perspective of a blind character, but Doerr’s descriptions of Marie-Laure show her as capable, intelligent, and determined. While she faces limitations throughout the novel, some extremely frightening, she endeavors to live a normal life thanks to the patience and grace of her father and uncle.
Marie-Laure’s viewpoint is so vibrant and full of color because of the unique way she perceives the world. She pays close attention to sounds and smells, and each of the people in her life are “seen” in her mind with various colors depending on the aura they radiate. Her perception of the world is remarkably charming, and Doerr spends a lot of time talking about braille books and how Marie-Laure loves them! I enjoyed reading about her braille editions so much that I have begun learning braille myself. I’m through the alphabet but the contractions are much harder!
Werner was also unique because I’ve never read from the perspective of a Hitler youth. Werner is small for his age and exceptionally bright. At the core of his being, he is kind and gentle. He wants to live a life outside of his mining town but doesn’t know what world he is walking into by leaving. Werner is sympathetic because of his disgust at the training the youth receive, but he knows he is also complicit. There are moments when readers may find him downright unlikable for his choices, but there are other decisions he makes that proves there is no such thing as black and white with people. Only a wide swath of grey. Werner’s friend Fredrick was one of my favorite characters.
The story jumps back and forth between the bombing of Saint-Malo in 1944 and the characters’ lives leading up to that point. I liked the way the time jumps were structured though being dropped in the bombing from the beginning was initially confusing. As the book goes on, I completely understand Doerr’s choices and admire how expertly he navigated between “past” and “present.” The chapters are all reasonable bite-sized chunks and no section lingered too long. The one-page chapters didn’t feel like filler either which is a testament to Doerr’s ability to make every sentence count. At 530-pages for the paperback edition, that’s quite a feat. I believe that’s one of the reasons the story had so much heart and pain within the pages. I was left wanting to know what would happen next to these people living through one of the worst times in history.
Both Werner and Marie-Laure are sympathetic and tragic in their own ways. Both of their endings surprised me, and, though I don’t intend to spoil anything, I can say that it left me grappling with a lot of different feelings. I would whole-heartedly recommend this book, and I hope you will pick it up if you haven’t already.
Overall rating: 4.5 stars