It does not surprise me that it took Anthony Doerr 10 years to write his adult fiction novel All the Light We Cannot See. It is a beautifully written, carefully plotted book that – despite being somewhat lengthy at 544 pages – relies on each and every word to convey story, meaning, and emotion.
A brief synopsis:
Marie-Laure has been blind since the age of six. Her father builds a perfect miniature of their Paris neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. But when the Nazis invade, father and daughter flee with a dangerous secret. Werner is a German orphan, destined to labor in the same mine that claimed his father’s life, until he discovers a knack for engineering. His talent wins him a place at a brutal military academy, but his way out of obscurity is built on suffering. At the same time, far away in a walled city by the sea, an old man discovers new worlds without ever setting foot outside his home. But all around him, impending danger closes in.
Although this book is set during World War II, Doerr never allows the war itself to overshadow the laser focus on his characters as individuals. Yes, the war is the mechanism that moves the story – and the characters – along, but I felt so deeply connected to each character, even the vile, unlikable ones, that the reading was an incredible personal experience.
And despite the weight of Doerr’s subject matter, he manages to write in a light, sometimes ethereal manner, sparing the reader any gloom, even while it seems the future of each character is uncertain.
There was one plot line, necessary to the story but of a different quality than the rest of the novel, about a mythical diamond that left me feeling distracted. I was also sometimes distracted by the frequent leaps forward and backward in time, as well as between character perspectives. I realized early on that this book requires a careful, committed reading.
I will also say that while I am not entirely satisfied with the ending, it feels appropriate and honest to the story as a whole. As if Doerr were being more loyal to the book than what the readers might want or expect. I have to respect him for that.
All the Light We Cannot See was a #1 New York Times Bestseller, a National Book Award Finalist, and recipient of a number of other awards and accolades. For me, it was the kind of book where everything felt suspended when I wasn’t able to read, as if everything was dependent on my return to begin playing again. Those are the best kinds of books, in my opinion, and the reason I recommend it as a highly worthwhile read.
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