All the Light We Cannot See: A book with water on the cover

All the Light We Cannot See

by Anthony Doerr


Marie-Laure grows up blind in Paris, learning the city by studying a tiny model made by her doting father. Werner spends his childhood in a German orphanage, teaching himself radio engineering as he roams his mining village with his sister. World War II turns their lives upside-down and leads to their collision in the walled seaside city of Saint-Malo.

What Works:

  • Sympathetic view of Germans: watching Werner grow up shows the humanity of the German people. It’s easy to look back on history and demonize the “evil Germans” without seeing the individuals, the men who left wives, families, and normal jobs to fight for their country (just like the American boys did). I’m not saying that the German people as a whole should get a pass on all of the atrocities that happened under their noses, but I do think it’s important to see the viewpoints of others. Werner, especially, aids in doing so, because when he enters the war, he is barely more than a child himself. Even though he’s a “bad guy,” I couldn’t help but root for him and hope that he would make it out of the war unscathed.
  • Parallel stories: While the flashback may be (over-)utilized by writers, it is obvious why it is a common storytelling mode: no one can argue with its effectiveness. Doerr begins the story at the end, and then moves back and forth between “real time” (the bombing of Saint-Malo) and the past (the growing-up years of Marie-Laure and Werner). This story takes moving around in time a little farther in that the stories of Marie-Laure and Werner do not intersect until near the end of the novel. The reader has to keep up with four different storylines. This could be a “what doesn’t work” point, but in this case, it does work!
  • Use of art, literature, and technology: Doerr references Clair de Lune, a piece of a piano suite by Debussy (listen here) as well as Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea throughout the entire novel. Marie-Laure’s father adds his own craft in the replicas and puzzle boxes he makes for his daughter. I could nearly hear the Debussy music as I read, especially near the end, and the tension building in 20,000 Leagues as Marie-Laure reads parallels the tension building in her own story. The new technology of the radio plays a huge role in Werner’s life particularly, and is the cause of salvation for both Werner and Marie-Laure.

What Doesn’t Work (in this case, really, the “slightly-less-beloved-parts-of-this-book”):

  • My main problem is that the chapters are so short, which sometimes makes the stories a little difficult to figure out, but that also helps the story to move along faster.
  • I don’t love the thread of the story revolving around the Sea of Flames, because it adds a bit of mythology and “this can’t really happen”-ness to the novel. However, it causes the eventual intersection of Marie-Laure’s and Werner’s stories, so I’ll let it pass. 😉
  • The denouement: I’m not going to say much, because I don’t want to ruin the book for you, but the ending leaves a lot to the imagination; Doerr ties up some loose ends, but leaves many others for his readers to chew on a while!

Final Thoughts:

This book is going on my “recommend to pretty much anyone” list. Doerr manages a truly unique story set during World War II, which I find remarkable. So many times we see World War II and the people involved in it as just part of one big, simple conflict; Doerr focuses on two seemingly insignificant people caught in the fray and demonstrates how important those individual lives are. Even in the darkness of such a terrible thing as war, the light comes from the good in people; we just have to look a little harder to see it.

Mrs. Ethridge’s Report Card:

My Rating: A

  • A lovely story focusing on the individuals that get caught up in larger movements, and how individuals can fight against their circumstances.
  • An ending that isn’t necessarily tied up in a pretty bow makes a better book in my opinion.

Clean Factor: B-

  • language: a few words, but fairly clean considering this is a war story
  • sexual content: a short, as not-graphic-as-you-can-get rape scene
  • violence: it’s a war novel, of course.

Book Clubbishness: A

  • This month’s pick! I’m interested to see what the others have to say.
  • My G’ma sent me this book, and her picks always seem to be a hit in book club. 🙂


Looking for other World War II stories? WWII historical fiction–and nonfiction too really–is just about my favorite! Other reviews on the subject: The Nightingale, God’s Smuggler.

2016 Reading Challenge

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