I read All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr for my book club and I didn’t know what to expect from it before I started - I ended up loving it. A couple things about the ending kept it from being a full 5 stars, but I can't, in good conscience, give it much less than that because it was utterly beautiful.
WARNING: Spoilers are below!
All the Light We Cannot See is a poignant, haunting historical fiction novel with prose that reads like poetry. Two young children, German Werner and French Marie-Laure, are simply trying to survive the various circumstances they were born into as World War II begins. With their families and lives torn apart, Werner and Marie-Laure manage to keep alive their curious minds even as fate pulls them toward a living nightmare.
All the Light We Cannot See was stunning. The language and lovely metaphors were what made this book stand out. It was so hard to put down - the multiple point of views and alternating timelines kept the pages turning of their own accord. When I wasn't reading it, I was thinking about it, and when I was reading it I was completely absorbed in the book's world.
All the Light vaguely reminded me of The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, and I’m glad that I read that one first because I probably wouldn’t have liked it nearly as much had All the Light been in my mind to compare it to. This one was better all around than The Nightingale.
Werner and Marie-Laure, the two main characters, were part of a generation who grew up in one of the most defining events of history. Werner’s story was especially tragic. I was so happy for him every time he got a chance to learn something new but dreaded the moment that was coming for him to be a Nazi soldier. His brilliance kept him safe, for the most part, and allowed him to study with his teachers so that he was less exposed to the horrors around him. He couldn't ignore it completely, though, and watching Werner learn the truth about his instructors and country was sad. I wanted him to be like Frederick and put the Nazis in their place, but of course, Frederick was swept away in the brutal tide that destroyed so many in real life. At that point, Werner became much less sympathetic to me, but remained a fascinating character. His story begs the question so many historians have asked: how responsible was the average soldier or citizen for what the Nazis did? Did they really not know what was happening, or were they simply ashamed to admit they did?
Marie-Laure was the less complicated character but her chapters were just as entertaining. I loved how her father took care of her and made sure she could navigate outside. Her blindness never once slowed her down. Thanks to him and his little houses, she was brave and independent. One of my favorite relationships in the book was that of Marie-Laure and her uncle; she brought life into his home again.
As I mentioned already, a few things about the ending kept this book from being 100% “perfect” in my mind. I was annoyed at the loss of the diamond. Why couldn't Marie-Laure go back after the war and bring it back to the museum? Heck, if she knew it was still in that grotto, someone else could have gone to fetch it. How could she work at the museum knowing she was the one who had lost their most precious artifact? For that matter, was the stone definitely still sitting there where it was easy to retrieve or had it been swept out to the ocean? It wasn't entirely clear.
I know leaving something that important up in the air makes the novel linger in the reader's mind - usually in a good way - but sometimes I just need a definite ending.
I liked the closure that came with the modern day chapters, though I thought the very last chapter with Marie-Laure and her grandson wasn't necessary. (That’s another reason it wasn't a full five stars for me.) I thought the meeting with Jutta and Marie-Laure would have been a better conclusion, but overall that's a very minor critique.
All the Light is a book I would recommend to anyone and it's 4.5 out of 5 stars. There's a reason this book won the Pulitzer and you'll just have to read it for yourself to appreciate it!