Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Discussion! All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

4 Stars

From the highly acclaimed, multiple award-winning Anthony Doerr, the beautiful, stunningly ambitious instant New York Times bestseller about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II. 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. Doerr’s “stunning sense of physical detail and gorgeous metaphors” (San Francisco Chronicle) are dazzling. Deftly interweaving the lives of Marie-Laure and Werner, he illuminates the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another. Ten years in the writing, a National Book Award finalist, All the Light We Cannot See is a magnificent, deeply moving novel from a writer “whose sentences never fail to thrill” (Los Angeles Times).

I remember the feeling of disappointment when I first heard of Milgram's psychological experiment on obedience and conscience. Most of my classmates were horrified and felt confident they wouldn't be in the 82.5 percent of the study participants who continued to administer painful electric shocks to people outside the room, despite hearing their cries of pain.

I knew. I knew I would fall in the 82.5 percent. I was young, eager to please, and scared to do something wrong. I knew I would keep pushing the button. I was no Jutta or Frederick. I was, and perhaps still am, Werner.

I'd like to think that as a woman in my 40s, I'm more confident than I was 20 years ago. I'd like to think I'm more Jutta, less Werner. I'm not sure. I'm lucky not to find myself in a position where I'm forced to find out.

     When his turn arrives, Werner throws the water like all the others and the splash hits the prisoner in the chest and a perfunctory cheer rises. He joins the cadets waiting to be relieased. Wet boots, wet cuffs; his hands have become so numb, they do not seem his own.
     Five boys later, it is Frederick's turn. Frederick, who clearly cannot see well without his glasses. Who has not been cheering when each bucketful of water finds its mark. Who is frowning at the prisoner as though he recognizes something there.
     And Werner knows what Frederick is going to do.
     Frederick has to be nudged forward by the boy behind him. THe upperclassman hands him a bucket and Frederick pours it out on the ground.
Bastian steps forward. His face flares scarlet in the cold. "Give him another."
     Again Frederick sloshes it onto the ice at his feet. He says in a small voice, "He is already finished, sir."
     The upperclassman hands over a third pail. "Throw it," commands Bastian. The night steams, the stars burn, the prisoner sways, the boys watch, the commandant tilts his head. Frederick pours the water onto the ground. "I will not."

The book, for those who haven't yet read it, starts off very, very slow. It's written in reverse chronological order with portions of the climax interspersed throughout. It was stressful to read a book this way, but it mimicked the life of the characters nicely: an overall feeling of false calm while everyone waited for the other shoe to drop.

Many people told me to hold on, that the book gets better and moves faster. It does, but for me that didn't happen until page 302. Still, I'm glad to have read it. The imagery in the book is something of the most beautiful I've ever read.

     Doors soar away from their frames. Bricks transmute into powder. Great distending clouds of chalk and earth and granite spout into the sky. All twelve bombers have already turned and climbed and realigned high above the Channel before roof slates blown into the air finish falling into the streets.
     Flames scamper up walls. Parked automobiles catch fire, as do curtains and lampshades and sodas and mattresses and most of the twenty thousand volumes in the public library. The fires pool and strut; they flow up the sides of the ramparts like tides; they splash into alleys, over rooftops, through a carpark. Smoke chases dust; ash chases smoke. A newsstand floats, burning.

There isn't much I can say without giving away spoilers, which as a rule I do only in the comment section. I'm eager to hear what you all thought about the book. If I can say anything here, it's...

Oh, Werner.


  1. I loved this book and didn't find it slow to start at all. The way it was lyrically written with short chapters really followed the cadence of how I read and I zipped right through it. "Oh, Werner" was my thought throughout.

  2. I LOVED how this book was written - I loved that there were bits and pieces of the present mixed in with their history, like a puzzle almost. It was a page turner for me; I absolutely adored it. And yes, Werner, Werner, Werner. I wish we could have known just a bit more about the big guy who protected him though and what his motivation was to do so.

  3. I so loved this book - and I was touched by the visual of Marie finding her way through the city with the puzzle model, just a sweet thing. That got me through the slow parts, but the last half was the best part for me for sure. Glad you were able to like it in the end!

  4. I read this book in late fall/early winter and was captivated. I tend to read quickly when I am enjoying a book, but I found myself going back and rereading passages-- the imagery and description!

  5. Loved Doerr's writing - got a first taste of it in his memoirs from A Year In Rome. You could just feel the doom coming. Oh, Werner...

  6. I know I'm so far behind on this, but I struggled with the beginning of this book. Put it down, read 5 other books and then finally finished it tonight. Werner. sigh. The last few chapters made it all worth reading. The end had me all choked up and almost in tears and that NEVER happens people. Everything just came together and the title made absolute sense. Someone else's review said 'haunting' and I am going with that


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