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.
(story synopsis from cover of Simon & Schuster hardcover edition)
I had seen Anthony Doerr‘s All the Light We Cannot See on numerous lists, and I had also added it to my own “to-read” list, but I never really “pulled-the-trigger” as you might say until I was ordering a few of my book club books on Amazon and it was listed under the “frequently bought together” section. So I figured, “why not?” and added it to my cart. To be very honest, I started reading this book towards the beginning of May, but with all of the end of the year craziness that occurs, I had to set this book to the side. I picked it up again after I finished Everything I Never Told You (check out my review of that book here).
When I picked up All the Light We Cannot See again, I was immediately drawn into the lives of Marie-Laure and Werner. Their stories are told simultaneously, so be aware that each chapter will switch perspectives. It is a book that you need to pay attention to, so I would advise setting aside some undisturbed time (and hey, if this requires going beach-side, I say go for it – tell your families I’ve given you permission :D). However, the novel is split into different times as well, so this does allow an opportunity for the reader to set it down (if they feel the need to return to reality). All the Light We Cannot See of course immediately spoke to that part of me that absolutely loves historical fiction, but this novel is so much more than a story set during World War II.
I truly believe that the use of the WWII setting is not really the purpose of the novel, but instead more of a medium that allows the real stories to advance. I think that Doerr’s novel is a greater commentary about life and how people react when they are faced with difficult situations. Throughout the All the Light We Cannot See, Marie-Laure and Werner are able to adapt and handle their situations differently because of the support they have and those they are surrounded by.
Marie-Laure has always been supported by her father, but when she starts to go blind (and eventually is fully blind) she must rely on him in different ways. However, her father also wants her to be able to do things independently, and so he is able to teach her how to learn her way around their neighborhood in Paris (using a miniature model he has built for her) and challenging her in intelligence in different ways.
Werner, on the other hand, has grown up in an orphanage with his sister, but he was always encouraged by the lady who took care of all of them. She knew that Werner was destined for greater things as he asked questions and was constantly curious about the world around them. Werner’s love for science continued to grow after he fixed a broken radio and soon found broadcasts in French teaching them (Werner and his sister, and anyone listening) about science. It is at this point that Werner’s and Marie Laure’s lives begin to intersect….they just don’t know it yet.
All the Light We Cannnot See is also an interesting perspective of looking at the things we do and the choices we make, and how they can affect those around us. As we know, those decisions that we make are made so much more difficult during times of war, but the reason behind them are always the same: love, power, escape, fear, etc. Doerr’s novel is full of beautiful imagery, especially when we have Marie-Laure’s perspective and how she describes the world to us. But Doerr also has filled this novel with emotion as we travel through such a tumultuous time, especially for children who must face the unknown. There is a power behind the writing that is compelling, and I did not want to put All the Light We Cannot See down.
(Disclaimer: the last part of the book did not capture my heart and mind as much as the rest of it, but please share your own thoughts with me as well.)