Book Review: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.”

 IMG_3741Synopsis: Set in France during World War II, young, blind Marie-Laure escapes Paris with her father and goes to Saint-Malo, possibly with the beautiful diamond called the Sea of Flames. In Berlin, young Werner joins the Hitler Youth and specializes in radios. Their stories collide along with that of Sergeant von Rumpel, a Nazi hunting the Sea of Flames.

Review: I have heard from so many people (friends, family, reviews, etc) that this book is amazing. Wonderful. The best. Everywhere I looked I would see someone reading this, or someone would tell me how much they loved it.   I actually have had a copy of All the Light We Cannot See for a while now, and I’d pick it up and something would always make me set the book down. I believe that books find us at the right time, as much as we find books. And it always seemed to me that it wasn’t my time to read this book. Finally I decided to start reading it, and two days after starting it, it was chosen as my book club selection for our March meeting. So I had to read it. And I liked it, I appreciated it, but I didn’t love it as much as I was expecting to (there is that hype again!).

Marie-Laure is blinded at age 6, and her father, Daniel, works as a locksmith at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris. When WWII hits, they flee Paris and end up staying with Daniel’s uncle, Etienne, in Saint-Malo. Daniel may or may not be carrying the Sea of Flames, a diamond that the Nazis are looking for. In Berlin, young Werner cultivates a love of radios and science, along with his younger sister, Jutta. Werner joins the Hitler Youth, and the book follows his training and then his time in the field. The two stories are connected and speak to the power of learning and humanity.

The writing is spellbinding. The sentences are truly beautiful works of art. There are passages in this book that broke my heart (specifically the chapters “White City” and “Clair de Lune”, which I re-read again and again). But here’s the thing: I did not connect with either of the two main characters, Marie-Laure or Werner, so I was reading with an air of detachment. I liked them, but I didn’t feel a soul connection, and that I think is why I didn’t love this book. My favorite characters were actually Frederick, Werner’s friend in the Hitler Youth who has a love of birds, and Volkheimer, “the Giant”, an older boy who works with Werner with the radios in the Hitler Youth and in the field. Neither of those characters were in the book enough for me. I wanted more, especially with Volkheimer. There was so much mystery and promise and sadness to him. I wish we had gotten a better glimpse into his mind. Perhaps this speaks to one of the points of the novel, “what you could be”. What they all could have been.

Radio plays a big part in this book, and those sections were fascinating. I’d like to read more about the history of radio, and how it helped shape our world today. I also enjoyed the science passages, and thought the way the theme of light was discussed and mentioned throughout the book was brilliant. This book also briefly mentions the treatment of women in Berlin at the end of World War II, and I haven’t seen many books bring this up.

All the Light We Cannot See is told in short chapters, some only paragraphs long, others several pages, with alternating story lines, and alternating in time. I really liked these short chapters, as it made the large book move quickly, and it was quite tempting to just read one more chapter. But I did have to set the book aside occasionally because of the weight of the writing. It was so beautiful; this is not a book that you can race through. You need to savor the writing, and let it seep in.

So, all in all, I do recommend reading this book provided you like literary fiction. But give yourself time – don’t expect to race through it. It was good, very powerful, but I feel drained now after reading it, and I don’t know if that is because I didn’t quite understand the ending and therefore missed the point, or if it was because this was so powerful I feel weighted down. Perhaps it just wasn’t the right time for me to read this book.

Bottom Line: Extremely well written and powerful, but I didn’t love it and did not connect to the main characters. Looking forward to discussing this book with my book club, as I’m guessing that we will have mixed reviews.

Have you read All the Light We Cannot See? What did you think? Do you have any reading suggestions about radios for me? Any reading suggestions about Berlin during and after WWII?


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