All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Genre: Fiction, historical fiction
Published by Scribner, 2014
Rating: Indiana’s: 2 out of 5 stars Pete’s: 0.5 out of 5 stars
Re-readability: We won’t be picking this one up again.
This is the first of many upcoming team reviews! Because we’re two voracious readers who spend a lot of time together, our reading schedules sometimes cross paths. Thus, when when we read the same books we’ll be handling the review together. We recently read Doerr’s popular novel from 2014 and thought it might be more interesting to share our thoughts on it in a more conversational format than our normal reviews.
Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning All the Light We Cannot See is a World War II novel that follows Marie-Laure, a blind French girl, and Werner Pfennig, a young German boy who is enlisted in the Nazi army. The war wreaks havoc as their tragic paths intersect.
Indiana: So I think we’re on basically on the same page with this one . . .
Pete: Yep. Bad page.
Indiana: Yeah. I would normally hesitate to disagree with the smart people that decide on the Pulitzer prize winner, but this is a special case.
Pete: It just tries a bit hard to be meaningful and packed with witty quotes… It’s overstuffed. And in the end it just feels empty.
Indiana: It was also a very “clipped” book. Every page or so, the perspective of the story switches to a different character. I usually like getting the chance to see the story from multiple perspectives, but this gave me a bit of whiplash.
Pete: Absolutely. And each scene felt so isolated from previous ones featuring the same character. They were all little snippets. And speaking of empty—the book has a ton of white space. If you flip through, it’s not really a 500-page novel.
Indiana: Which made it feel like a quick read! But at the same time, I feel like I invested in all the wrong characters. Namely, any of them. I know this is WWII, but the way that some of the character’s stories didn’t feel meaningful.
Pete: But why was that? Marie-Laure, the protagonist, is definitely likeable. Her situation is sad—she became blind at a young age, and her world is blown apart by the war. She and her father are uprooted from their home. But we don’t get a ton more about her than that. She is blind, she likes stories and puzzles, she cares about her father and those around her. It’s hard not to like her, but it is hard to understand what sort of struggle she’s going through exactly. Hardship? Loss?
Indiana: Right. And then there’s Werner, who seems like another character we should root for because we can see him struggling with trying to do the right thing while fighting for Hitler.
Pete: He’s the Nazi we’re supposed to feel bad for because he’s completely forced into the situation. He does have opportunities to make choices, and sometimes he makes the right one. But he feels like a placeholder character—he represents those on the evil side of WWII who are unwillingly pulled into the conflict, and Marie-Laure represents the many blameless victims. There just isn’t a ton beyond the surface, though Doerr tries to bolster their characters with disparate qualities like Marie-Laure’s fascination with the ocean, or Werner’s knack for radios.
Indiana: Speaking of placeholder characters, can we talk about the jewel hunter for a moment? Von Rumpel feels like the cheesiest Bond villain out there. He has some sort of “mysterious illness” and is chasing after a cursed jewel which Marie-Laure just happens to have.
Pete: I don’t understand why he was necessary to the plot, or even why the jewel was necessary. They feel like plot devices only, pushing the story forward and the characters together in a terrible tragedy.
Indiana: Quite! Lastly, I think we both found some of the descriptions a little odd. I liked that Doerr was aiming to create some truly unique scenes and images, especially through Marie-Laure’s character, but I couldn’t quite picture some of them.
Pete: The descriptions were frustrating, and there were a handful of times when I had to stop and think to figure out what he was describing and why. For example, from page 322: “…houseflies draw electric-blue loops in the air.” Why would the path that a fly takes in the air have a color? This is a scene from Etienne’s (Marie-Laure’s uncle) perspective, so it isn’t the mental image of a blind girl. What do flies have to do with the color “electric blue”? And another strange simile when Marie-Laure is going up and down the stairs: “…up and down, up and down, as though working her way up and down the spire of an enormous seashell” (p. 298). Marie-Laure is stressed, and maybe she’s thinking about the ocean to calm herself, but otherwise, what does the image of the spire of an enormous seashell offer the reader? Why this unusual image, one that has nothing at all to do with stairs?
Indiana: I think it’s safe to say that neither of us were enthralled by the ornamental writing or with the storyline itself.
Pete: Or the thirty-page epilogue.
Indiana: But it’s interesting that a lot of other reviewers (from The Washington Post and New York Times) raved about it. I’m curious to hear what others think about it. If we got something wrong, or if you think we missed the mark with this one, please let us know!