All the Light We Cannot See
530 pages (hardcover)
In case you hadn’t noticed, I have some book prejudices. I generally dislike books:
- That are over 400 pages
- That employ split or jumping chronologies
- About war (or, frankly, that could be classified as historical fiction, generally)
- With overly flowery writing
Bearing this in mind, there are some books that I know I should probably avoid, because, based on these prejudices, they’re set up for failure. All the Light We Cannot See is one of those books that covers a bunch of my book-prejudice bases:
- It’s a whopping 530 pages long (No lie: holding it up made my forearms tired).
- Every few chapters, the year changes, skipping back and forth in time. The book’s timeline ranges from 1934 to 2014 but is focused mainly between1940 and 1944.
- In case that timeline didn’t raise any red flags, let’s be clear: this is largely set during World War II (in Germany and France).
- The book is peppered with sentences like this one: “The faintly metallic smell of the falling snow surrounds her,” and author Doerr admitted in this interview on Powell’s Books Blog, “I know this is going to be more lyrical than maybe 70 percent of American readers want to see . . .” At times, it comes off as super cheesy and too in-your-face symbolic or wannabe meaningful (like the chapter that closes: “Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.” Oh, and the italics are in the book; I didn’t add them. Obviously.).
I should have HATED this book. I never should have read it. I should have ignored the ratings and the reviews and the hype and gone about my business. There are billions of books I could have read instead.
But the early praise for this one was serious. Indie Bound named it the #1 pick on its Indie Next List for May. Amazon called it one of the Best Books of the Month for May (and the early customer reviews were some of the most glowing I have ever seen). The New York Times described it as “hauntingly beautiful” and “elegantly circuitous.” The Washington Post’s review begins: “I’m not sure I will read a better novel this year than Anthony Doerr’s ‘All the Light We Cannot See.’”
And, I’ll admit it: I’m a sucker for hype. If something gets ridiculously rave reviews, I have to find out if it deserves them . . . even if the book seems like it’s one that I’m destined to hate.
So, I read it. Yes, the writing is overly flowery/lyrical at times. And it could have been a bit subtler (the light theme didn’t need to be hammered so much). And too much time was spent on and detail provided for certain plot points, while others were rushed through or glossed over (details would be spoilery, so I will leave it at that). But, overall, this book is a success. Here are some of the things it has going for it:
- The cast of characters is diverse, interesting, flawed, and likeable. Although this is a book set during the War, it is a character-driven tale about good versus evil (or light versus dark, if you prefer). At the forefront are two teenagers, Marie-Laure and Werner. Marie-Laure lives in Paris with her locksmith father. She goes blind from a degenerative disease at an early age. Her non-visual grasp on the world is beautifully and richly realized. She is clever and sensitive and highly perceptive. When Paris is attacked, she and her father escape to Saint-Malo to stay with Marie-Laure’s agoraphobic great-uncle and his feisty, old housekeeper. Werner is an orphan who lives in a children’s home in Zollverein. He is curious, brilliant, and adept at building and fixing radios. When word of his skills spreads, he is recruited to the National Political Institute of Education at Schulpforta. There, he helps develop a triangulating device. He then joins a team that uses this device to locate and abolish enemy radio transmitters (both the instruments and their operators).
- The longest chapter in the book is maybe six pages. Most are two. Despite the fact that the book is ridiculously long, it reads like a much shorter book (there’s a lot of white space among those 530 pages). As a result, the lyrical writing comes off as poignant and poetic, rather than slow and overly descriptive.
- The plot is complex and intricate. Woven into the story are numerous odd and interesting elements, including: a huge diamond called the Sea of Flames that carries with it a curse, Marie-Laure’s father’s incredibly detailed models of their neighborhoods in Paris and Saint-Malo, an old dog kennel that abuts the ocean and is home to dozens of snails and shellfish, old science lessons recorded in French and broadcast for hundreds of miles, and loaves of bread carrying secret messages. Throughout the first several hundred pages, you are aware that Marie-Laure’s and Werner’s paths are destined to cross, and the build-up to that moment is suspenseful and exciting. There are moments of tenderness, moments of violence, moments of sadness, moments of humor, moments of courage, and moments of redemption (it’s a long book, after all).
This book will win awards. And it will be made into a movie. Mark my words.
My earlier list of book prejudices was not exhaustive. I have many others. For instance, I love:
- Well-written books
- Books driven by unique, interesting, likeable characters
- Characters you can root for
- Books with unanticipated (but not gimmicky/twisty) climaxes
So, maybe it’s not such a surprise that I enjoyed this book.
Who should read it: Sohair, Tina, Jason (i.e., people who are always looking for good selections for their book clubs. This one provides discussion fodder galore. Like: What did people think of the flowery writing style juxtaposed with the choppy chapters? Was the curse of the Sea of Flames real? Is it wrong to root for Werner, the little Nazi?); Aunt Lynn (Honestly, I have no idea what kind of books you like, but when I finished this one, your name popped into my head. I think you’d like it. You and Ann should both read it.)
Want to read along with me? Reviews of these books are coming soon:
- To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris (an Amazon Best Book of the Month for May 2014 from the author of PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award winner and National Book Award Finalist Then We Came to the End)
- Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi (a retelling of Snow White that was named one of Amazon’s Best Books of the Month for March 2014)