Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See has now been on the New York Times bestseller list for 35 weeks, and I had been actively resisting reading it for 30 or so of them. Nazi Germany? Meh. Plucky blind girl? Be serious. Sensitive teenage wunderkind? What is this, some kind of historical Fault in Our Stars?
But then I stood in my local bookseller (Schuler Books and Music), and read the first chapter, and then a couple more… standing there with Christmas shoppers jostling me and the occasional heavy sigh from someone who was annoyed with my aisle-blocking. There are leaflets falling from the sky, then the bombers come, and then the “sightless sixteen-year-old girl,” who is clearly all on her own, catches one of the useless-to-her leaflets, and then the young German soldier hustles to the basement to the sound of bombs falling all around. And I was hooked.
I read a lot of mysteries, needless to say, but there’s not a one that starts out with more suspense than Doerr has provided. History gives the reader the context, and there is zero doubt that the allies defeated the Nazis. But this town – and these people – how did they get there? And what happens to them? In just nine short pages, Doerr makes you care.
The story he tells could easily be real, although there is a bit of the magical about it. Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a lively, lovely girl who goes blind slowly, and then all at once, at the age of six. She lives with her father, the main locksmith and keeper of the keys at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. He is a careful, caring man, and builds Marie-Laure’s autonomy by fashioning a model of their neighborhood for her to hold in her hands. By studying the model, she will learn to navigate independently. One thread of the plot recounts what happens to Marie-Laure and her father as Germany begins its assault on France, how they escape (along with a priceless diamond from the museum) to Saint-Malo, where her shell-shocked great uncle lives with his housekeeper, and how this unassuming group become a critical part of the French resistance.
At the same time, the young German boy Werner Pfennig and his sister, Jutta, are orphans. They live in deprivation in an orphanage, where there is some love but also fear, minimal hope and no escape. But Werner has a talent, a talent for understanding how electrical things – especially radios – work. And so, as things begin to fall apart, Werner begins to be the person that everyone turns to. Even the local SS hear of his talent, and Werner is offered a place in the Hitler Youth. He takes it, and receives an education in not only electrical engineering, but cruelty. This second thread recounts Werner’s path, which includes many sad events, true friendship and ultimately, heroism.
The two threads intertwine loosely, looping back and forth in time, occasionally almost touching, until the point where Marie-Laure and Werner meet. Their meeting is brief, but profoundly meaningful. The book is beautifully written, the characters compelling real and honest, and there are few easy answers.
What I liked best about All the Light We Cannot See is that it not only revealed the truth, as needed by the story and the characters within the work, but broader truths about the nature of humanity. There’s plenty for book clubs to excavate – symbolism! Metaphor! Man’s inhumanity to man! But it’s all presented in a way that is eminently readable and entertaining. Fabulous. Here’s hoping that 20th Century Fox, which has optioned the book, can keep Doerr’s deft touch with the material.
BTW, the book made the New York Times 10 Best Books of 2014. You can check it out here.