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.
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.)
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.
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.
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, with the exception of one instance. The characters were vivid and often endearing, but often didn’t feel entirely real to me.
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.
Netflix’s All the Light We Cannot See Movie Adaptation
It was recently announced (in March 2019) that this book is being adapted into a limited series on Netflix. It will be produced by 21 Laps, the same company responsible for Stranger Things and the movie Arrival. For more details, see Everything We Know about the All The Light We Cannot See Netflix Series.
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.
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?
Detailed Plot Summary (Spoilers)
Part Zero (August 1944)Leaflets fall on a city (Saint-Malo) as Americans bombers approach. A blind girl (Marie-Laure LeBlanc) in Saint-Malo sits next to a small-scale model of the city. Meanwhile, a German boy, Werner Pfennig, 18, is at a hotel which is serving as a base of operations for German soldiers. Frank Volkheimer, Werner's staff sergeant, notes that the bombing is starting. Bernd, the military engineer, shuts them in the cellar where they'll be safe from the American bombers. Werner thinks about his sister, Jutta. In Saint-Malo, people who are left are trying to flee the city. Saint-Malo has been under German occupation for 4 years. Now, allies of France (America) are attacking the city to try to take it back. Marie-Laure hears the roar of the sirens and engines as the planes approach. She then picks up the roof of one of the buildings in the scale model and picks up a stone hidden inside it. As the bombs fall, she clutches the stone. Etienne, Marie-Laure's great-uncle, is inside the Fort National, just outside the city.
Part One (1934)(The narrative shifts back in time to 1934.) Marie-Laure and Daniel in Paris Marie-Laure is six and living in Paris, but will soon be blind. Her father Daniel works as a locksmith at the Natural History Museum. Her mother died in childbirth. At the museum, a tour guide talks about a stunning blue diamond with a red streak in it called the “Sea of Flames" which is said to be cursed. It once belonged to a Prince, who concluded that while the diamond is able to keep its owner safe, it causes everyone else around him to die. The Prince's whole family dies as he holds on to the stone. Years later, a duke buys the stone and his loved ones begin dying. In terror, he donates it to the museum, which is now kept upstairs on the 13th floor. They say that to break the curse, the diamond needs to be thrown into the ocean. When Marie loses her sight, her father gets her a cane and teaches her Braille. He builds a scale model of their neighborhood in Paris so she can memorize it and get around. Daniel also builds wooden puzzle boxes for her to solve and buys her a braille copy of Around the World in 80 Days, by Jules Verne. Werner and Jutta in Zollverein Werner grows up with his sister Jutta in an orphanage in Zollverein, Germany. Their father died in the mines. He's raised by the nurse there, Frau Elena. He is sickly, but smart. He's eight and she's six. They find a radio, and he manages to fix it. Werner is soon teaching himself how to build radios. They start hearing anti-Jewish stuff from the broadcasts on the radio, and Werner has a book confiscated because the author is Jewish. Boys in Germany begin joining Hitler Youth. Werner becomes the local expert on radios, and he finds a way to extend the reach of the radio. He discovers a frequency where a Frenchman gives science lessons and plays classical music. When a Nazi corporal needs a radio fixed, Werner is asked to fix a radio for a powerful man named Siedler. He does it, and Siedler recommends him for a special Nazi school which could be his chance to escape the mines. Werner breaks his radio because he doesn't want be listening to subversive content. Marie-Laure and Daniel in Paris When the Germans descend on Paris, Daniel and Marie-Laure need to flee. The museum makes a set of fake replicas of the diamond to be stowed out of the city, in different direction, for safekeeping. Daniel is given one of them, and like all the other three people, he doesn't know if he has a decoy or the real diamond.
Part Two (August 1944)Saint-Malo is in ruins after the bombing. Werner, Volkheimer and Bernd are trapped by debris. Marie-Laure goes to hide in the cellar, though the house itself was not hit.
Part Three (June 1940)Werner in Schulpforta After Siedler's recommendation, Werner goes through grueling physical and academic testing for the Nazi school. He gets accepted to the National Political Instituteat in Schulpforta. Jutta, who believes the Nazis are bad, is angry with him. Werner insists he's going to become a scientist, not a Nazi. At the Institute, a doctor Hauptmann notices Werner's engingeering talents. Werner makes a friend, Frederick, who knows a lot about birds. He also meets Volkheimer there, an older student and teacher's assistant who is large and intimidating (but secretly loves classical music). Werner is now 15. He's excelling at the school, but Frederick struggles. When Frederick is identified as the "weakest", one of the boys is instructed to beat him up. Marie-Laure and Daniel in Saint-Malo Marie-Laure and Daniel travel from Paris to Saint-Malo, to Etienne's house. Madame Manec, the cook, feeds them. Manec explains that Etienne rarely leaves his room on the 5th floor. Etienne shows Marie-Laure his collection of radios and books. In Saint-Malo, the Germans arrive. The townspeople are told to surrender any weapons. With the Germans around, Marie-Laure is told to stay in the house. Marie-Laure spends more time with Etienne, and one day he shows her the 6th floor, which was her grandfather's room. It's full of machinery, including a gramophone and radio transmitter. Etienne plays science lessons that Marie-Laure's grandfather once recorded (the ones Werner and Jutta used to listen to) on the radio as a tribute. When the Nazi's demand surrender of any radios. Etienne does apart from the radio transmitter that he and Marie-Laure conceal behind a wardrobe. A man, Claude Levitte, notices Daniel is living at Etienne's house and measuring the streets. He knows the Nazis will pay him for reports of this suspicious activity. Daniel completes the scale-model of Saint-Malo around the time he is instructed to return to Paris. He says he will be gone for 10 days. Daniel is arrested just outside of Paris and thrown in jail. Reinhold von Rumpel Meanwhile, Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel is a soldier and jeweler. He's been assigned to track down and seize major treasures/jewelry for the Third Reich. He wants the Sea of Flames. He also walks with a distinctive limp. Reinhold visits the Natural History Museum to see the Sea of Flames.
Part Four (August 1944)(The narrative shifts forward to 1944 again.) Saint-Malo is an empty city post-bombing. Reinhold locates Etienne's house and enters. Marie-Laure, in the cellar of Etienne's house, hears someone enter. Meanwhile, still trapped in the hotel cellar, Werner tries to fix a radio that they have with them.
Part Five (January 1941)Werner in Schulpforta
Werner accepts an invitation to stay with Frederick's family in Berlin during the school holidays. The house is huge and lavish.
When they get back to school, they are shown an escapee from the work/prison camps. The students are told to douse him with buckets of cold water (which will surely kill him). Werner does so, but Frederick refuses.
Werner continues to get special treatment and praise from Dr. Hauptman. Werner, Volkheimer, and Dr. Hauptmann test out a transceiver they've built. It allows them to locate each other across large areas.
Frederick continues to be bullied by the other boys. One morning Frederick is gone. Werner finds out he was being bullied the previous night. He goes to the infirmary and finds a bloody bunk and is told Frederick required surgery and won't be returning.
Volkheimer leaves to be a sergeant. Jutta and Werner's letter are increasingly censored. Werner tells Hauptman he wants to leave, which infuriates him. Hauptman tells him no, and says that Werner will no longer get special treatment.
Werner soon gets called in to be shipped off to war. In spite, Hauptman has lied and told officials that Werner is 18 now (Werner is actually 16) and age-eligible for duty. Werner will be joining the special technology division of the German army.
Before he leaves, Werner visits Frederick in Berlin. His injuries have damaged his brain, he doesn't remember Werner and he has lost his interest in birds.
Marie-Laure in Saint-Malo
Marie-Laure is upset that her father has been gone too long. In his absence, Marie-Laure ventures outside, smelling the ocean and collecting shells. Daniel writes to say that he's in Germany and doing fine.
Madam Manec gets involved in resistance against the Germans. She asks Etienne to join them and to use his radio transceiver to help their cause, but he refuses.
One of the resistance fighters, Hubert Bazin shows Marie-Laure a grotto (natural cave) nearby that is locked with a gate. It's full of snails. He gives her a key to the gate.
One day, Hubert Bazin disappears. Soon, policemen show up to search the house in connection with Daniel's arrest. Afterwards, Etienne tells Manec to stop her resistance activities in his home and not to involve Marie-Laure.
Manec gets pneumonia, recovers a little, but soon passes away.
Reinhold von Rumpel
Reinhold has been successful at his assignment, collecting all sorts of treasures. The exception is the Sea of Flames. The one at the museum was a fake. It's his one big failure.
He tracks down Dupont who designed the fake stone and arrests him so he can interrogate him. He learns there are three fakes and one real stone out there.
Meanwhile, Reinhold is informed by a doctor that has a medical issue (swollen groin and lymph nodes) and needs a biopsy. He finds out he has a tumor. He reads about how the Sea of Flames is said to heal its owner and give eternal life, and he is determined to find it.
Part Six (August 1944)(The narrative shifts to 1944 again.) Upon hearing the intruder (which is Reinhold), Marie-Laure runs up to the 6th floor and hides behind the wardrobe where the radio transmitter is hidden. She brings along some cans of food, a knife, and a brick. She's still clutching the stone. As he searches the house, Reinhold see the scale model of the city and concludes that it must contains the stone. In the hotel cellar, Bernd dies from his injuries. Werner successfully fixes the radio but there's only static.
Part Seven (August 1942)Werner in Russia Werner takes a train to Russia, accompanied by a fellow soldier named "Neumann Two" (a nickname bestowed upon him because there was already a Neumann One in the unit). He's horrified when they pass by a train of naked, starving prisoners being led to their deaths. When they arrive, he discovers that the sergeant of his unit is Volkheimer. They are responsible for using radio transceivers to track down forbidden radio broadcasts. Werner will serve as their radio technician. He also meets the rest of the unit, including Neumann One and Bernd. One day, he tracks down their first illicit Russian broadcast. The rest of the unit charges in, kill everyone, ransack the place and burn it down. Werner tries to tells himself he's just responsible for the math of calculating where it's coming from. As time passes, he gets more and more proficient. They travel to Minsk, Prague, and beyond. Wherever they go, Volkheimer often takes the clothes of prisoners to replace his if it is warmer or his boots are worn. This generally means the prisoner will end up dying of cold. One day, they storm a building and kill a mother and her child. Werner realizes his calculations were wrong. There's no radio. Marie-Laure and Etienne in Saint-Malo Following Manec's death, Etienne joins the resistance. Due to his agoraphobia, he needs Marie-Laure's help. Each day Marie-Laure is to fetch loaves of bread from Madame Ruelle that have pieces of paper with numbers baked into them. Etienne then transmits those numbers over the radio. Etienne also plays classical music after his broadcasts. Marie-Laure gets another letter from her father, heavily censored as always, instructing her to look “inside Etienne’s house, inside the house” . On her 16th birthday, Etienne gives her copy of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in Braille since she never finished reading it before they had to flee Paris. French resistance fighters blow up a bridge, killing six soldiers, due to the assistance of Etienne's broadcasts. A German commander requests assistance in locating the radio transmissions.
Reinhold von Rumpel
Reinhold goes to Paris when a man is arrested at the Natural History Museum. The man has many jewels with him, including a fake Sea of Flames. In Amiens, he discovers the third. He has now tracked down 3 of the 4 stones (3 decoy, 1 real).He decides to track down the designer of the Museum's safe. This leads him to Daniel and Marie-Laure's old apartment. He also learns that the designer has a blind daughter. He sees the scale-model and remembers the puzzle-box design of the museum's safe. He concludes that its maker may have the last and only real stone.
Part Eight (August 1944)(The narrative shifts to 1944 again.) A bomb is dropped on Fort National (where Etienne is), and some Frenchmen are killed. (It doesn't specify if Etienne is among them.) In the house, Reinhold says something in German, indicating he has noted that the only part of the scale-model that is missing is the house itself (which Marie-Laure previously removed). He's also in pain from his disease and desperate to find the stone. He takes some morphine. As another round of bombs are dropped on Saint-Malo, Marie-Laure opens a can of food, using the noise to disguise the sound. As she hears footsteps going further away, she sneaks to get some water and picks up her book (20,000 Leagues) on the way back to the radio room. She decides to read some of it into the radio receiver. Werner scans the frequencies and comes upon Marie-Laure reading on the radio. Then it stops and she says “He is here. He is right below me" before cutting out.
Part Nine (May - August 1944)Reinhold von Rumpel
Reinhold is told that due to his tumor, he has 3 or 4 months left to live. He gets word that Daniel LeBlanc was arrested leaving Saint-Malo, according to a man named Claude Levitte. Reinhold finds Levitte, from whom he gets Etienne's address.
Werner in Saint-MaloWerner and his unit travel to France in response to the German commander's request for assistance. One night, as he is scanning the frequencies he hears Etienne's broadcast. Even more, he recognizes it as being so similar to the voice he heard as a child. He hears to classical music as well. He doesn't report the broadcast to Volkheimer, but he does locate where it's coming from. He goes to check out the house, passing a blind teenager on the way. Marie-Laure and Etienne in Saint-Malo Madame Ruelle gives news that the Allied forces will invade Northern France in one week. As Marie heads back to the house with bread one day, someone stops her (Reinhold). He asks her about Daniel. Through his questioning, he reveals he is searching for the diamond. Finally, he leaves. When Marie-Laure has been gone too long, Etienne decides to go look for her, despite his agoraphobia. He finds her hiding in the grotto. Thinking about Reinhold's questions, Marie-Laure remembers her father's clue and fetches the diamond from the miniature house. Following the Reinhold encounter, Etienne does not want Marie-Laure going outside anymore. He ventures outside again due to an urgent request from Madame Ruelle (to note locations of anti-aircraft guns), but is stopped by Reinhold. At the house, Claude stops by to tell Marie-Laure that everyone needs to flee and she needs to come with him. She refuses.