All the Light We Cannot See

By Anthony Doerr, A lyrical and moving story of two kids in German-occupied France during WWII

I read All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr some time ago, back when it was only available in hardback. I carted that hefty chunk of text over to a coffee shop to read. I remember feeling a little intimidate by the sheer weight of the book, only to be surprised as the pages effortlessly sped by.

The story is vividly and beautifully told, and it transports you across France and Germany during World War II. It starts with a young French girl living with her father in Paris, near the Museum of Natural History.

The Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris

Plot Summary

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr follows two adolescents in France and Germany during World War II. Marie-Laurie LeBlanc is a young girl in Paris whose father is a master locksmith working for the Museum of Natural History. She begins to lose her vision at a young age, so her father attentively brings her books in braille and teaches her to use her sense of touch to open puzzle boxes and navigate the world around her.

Marie-Laurie’s father has been entrusted with the task of harboring a valuable stone — or one of three decoys made to resemble it — known as the Sea of Flames. It’s a stone that’s known as much for its value as a priceless diamond as it is for the myths that surround it; some believe the stone is the key to immortality. (This stone is entirely fictionalized, by the way, in case any one is wondering.)

A German radio operator, March 1941

Meanwhile, Werner Pfennig is an engineering prodigy growing up in an orphanage in Germany along with his younger sister, Jutta. His acumen in mechanical engineering — with an expertise in radios and radio transmissions — lands him in an elite Nazi military boarding school. There, he will be groomed to serve the Wehrmacht, the Nazi army, as a radio operator.

At the same time, Major Reinhold von Rumpel, a Nazi Sergeant, is on a mission to track down the Sea of Flames. Marie-Laurie and her father retreat out of Paris to live with Etienne, an eccentric older relative, in the walled city of Saint-Malo, off the northern coast of France. There, with World War II breaking out across Europe as a backdrop, the lives of Marie-Laurie and Werner briefly intertwine.

An aerial view of Saint-Malo, France

Review and Analysis

I was genuinely surprised by how quickly the book went by. It’s a tender and poetically written story. It also manages to avoid being overly sentimental, though perhaps toeing the line at times, which I think is a feat for this type of novel.

Map with Saint-Malo in Red

Doerr’s crisp but vibrant prose is definitely the strongest aspect of the novel. His command of language, and his ability to weave it into evocative images of towns, people and places is what propels this story forward. His words feel deliberate and confident, allowing you to drift easily into the story.

One point of criticism I had was that I found the characters and their motives a little over-simplistic to the point of feeling unrealistic. In All the Light We Cannot See, the bad guys are bad and the good guys are good. The characters were vivid and often endearing, but their straight-forwardness kept them from being intellectually interesting to me. I found the story in general to be a little simplistic.

Similarly, there is something achingly beautiful about many of the scenes; for example, that of a blind girl, carefully tracing her fingers over an intricate maze of streets crafted to resemble her town, as she slowly memorizes the roads and alleyways that lead to and from her home. At the same time, there was also an unreal quality to it, as if the loftiness of it all distanced it from reality.

It also has to be said that I wish writers would back off of using World War II as a setting for their novels. I have such a huge backlog of fiction set in WWII because so many books are set in that period, and I tend to want a break from it after reading one.

None of this, however, detracts from the fact that this really is a lovely and really enjoyable novel to read. When I read, I have a tendency to pull myself out of a story repeatedly because I’m constantly trying to look at it with a critical eye. With All the Light We Cannot See however, the book has a lyricism that made me swept me along. I easily forgot myself in carefully memorized streets of Marie’s France and in the tweaks and tinkering of Werner’s radio.

Read It Or Skip It?

All the Light We Cannot See was a little different than I thought it would be, but mostly in good ways. It’s more accessible than I’d assumed it would be and just so elegantly written. I found the book very enjoyable, even if it didn’t particularly challenge me or present new ideas.

If you’re looking for a book that will make you think and has a lot of hard substance to it, I think this one is probably not going to be up for the task.

Instead, I would recommend this book to anyone who’s up for (yet another) World War II story and appreciates really adept, clear and vibrant prose. I would go so far as to say that it’s a must-read if you’re a writer trying to study how to elevate your writing. It’s worth mentioning that this book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2015.

I was looking for a relaxing-afternoon-in-a-coffee-shop-type book when I read it, and I ended up enjoying this book quite a bit.

Did you read this book? What did you think of the writing and plot?