Sunday, July 26, 2015

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Copyright 2014
Scribner - Historical Fiction/WWII
531 pp.

Once, when she was eight or nine, her father took her to the Pantheon in Paris to describe Foucault's pendulum. Its bob, he said, was a golden sphere shaped like a child's top. It swung from a wire that was sixty -seven meters long; because its trajectory changed over time, he explained, it proved beyond all doubt that the earth rotated. But what Marie-Laure remembered, standing at the rail as it whistled past, was her father saying that Foucault's pendulum would never stop. It would keep swinging, she understood, after she and her father left the Pantheon, after she had fallen asleep that night. After she had forgotten about it, and lived her entire life, and died.

Now it is as if she can hear the pendulum in the air in front of her: that huge golden bob, as wide across as a barrel, swinging on and on, never stopping. Grooving and regrooving its inhuman truth into the floor.

~fr. p. 207 of All the Light We Cannot See

In All the Light We Cannot See, Marie-Laure is a young French girl who has lost her vision. Her father is the master of locks at Paris's Museum of Natural History and a fine craftsman. To help Marie-Laure gain a little independence, he has created a painstakingly detailed model of their Paris neighborhood so that she can familiarize herself with the area's features from the safety of their home.

Werner and his sister live in an orphanage in a German mining town. When he discovers a broken radio and is able to fix it, his eyes are opened to the wonders of science and engineering. He quickly teaches himself about wiring, currents, radio tubes . . . everything he needs to know in order to build and repair radios. The last thing he wants is to end up crushed in a mine like his father.

As Hitler comes to power and war breaks out, Werner ends up in a barbaric school where he is educated and desensitized to cruelty while Marie-Laure and her father are forced to escape to her uncle's home in a walled seaside village after the Germans invade Paris. Both experience the horror and deprivation of war but Werner is only peripherally aware of how hardened he is becoming while Marie-Laure becomes stronger and braver when war challenges her household to endanger their lives for the sake of others.

Eventually, Marie-Laure and Werner cross paths but there's a long and winding set of paths before they finally, briefly intertwine. I admit to being surprised that the encounter between Marie-Laure and Werner was so minimal but it worked because the storytelling is so intricately and beautifully crafted that I actually found myself deliberately dragging out the reading of All the Light We Cannot See for the sake of simply enjoying Doerr's writing.

I was, I confess, disapointed with the ending. At over 500 pages, I felt invested in the story and there were certain answers I desired to know but which were not revealed. After giving it some thought, I realized that the slow, fragmented feeling of the ending chapters does lend it a realistic air. Anyone who has read much about WWII knows that often the answers never came. Did someone live or die? What happened to valued possessions? But, in the end, the stunning writing convinced me that an imperfect ending was not enough to make it less than a 5-star read.

Highly recommended - The highest compliments I feel like I can give to a writer are love of and belief in the characters he created and having felt a "you were there" sensation. Both were true of All the Light We Cannot See. I particularly loved the idea of those elaborately detailed neighborhood models Marie-Laure's father built to help her learn her way around. I found myself thinking, "I would love to see and touch those models." I also adored Marie-Laure's entire family, rooted for Werner, whose humanity was buried yet still evident through the occasional thought he had about how disappointed his sister would be, and sometimes found myself rereading sentences for their rhythm and beauty. A truly spectacular work of writing.

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  1. This has been on my TBR for a while. I need to get to it soon!

    1. It's a wonderful story, Hillary. Hope you're able to get to it in the near future!

  2. Did you follow the Tournament of Books this year? I was so glad I had read this before the tourney started and was thrilled that it won. I loved the characters.

    1. No, I didn't. I had no idea it won. The characters are marvelous, I agree. I loved Marie-Laure's entire family, in particular.


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