All the Light We Cannot See: A Novel [Hardcover]

by Anthony Doerr

(Scribner, $27, 544 pages)

Who is this author?

Anthony Doerr has won an impressive, almost alarming, number of awards for his books: NY Times Notables, American Library Association  and Washington Post Books of the Year, a Barnes & Noble Discover Prize, a Rome Prize, a Story Prize, the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award, and the Ohioana Book Award three times. His stories regularly are published in magazines and anthologies, including The Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Prize Stories. In 2007, the British literary magazine Granta named Doerr to its list of 21 Best Young American novelists.  The former writer-in-residence for Idaho, where he lives with his wife and twin boys, he also writes a column on science books for the Boston Globe and is a contributor to The Morning News.

What is this book about?

The story is set during World War II, but it is not primarily a book about war. Instead, it tells about two teenagers: a French girl who went blind at age 6 and now is hiding in the countryside with her father from the Nazis, and Werner, a German boy with a talent for repairing radios and other devices, who is conscripted into a particularly nasty Hitler Youth group whose actions trouble him greatly.  Another character, you might say, is a fabulous 133-carat blue diamond that bears a legendary curse: it is believed to grant its owner immortality but cause the death of all those he or she holds near and dear. Marie-Laure’s father was a locksmith at the Museum of Natural History in Paris before they escaped, and the museum has given the fabled diamond and three decoy replicas to trusted employees to try to keep the jewel out of Nazi hands.  Eventually, Marie-Laure and Werner meet in this tale of striving for goodness in the midst of war’s horrors.

Why you’ll like it:

As shown by all those major awards he has garnered, Doerr has a gorgeous writing style, a skill as important as the ability to create compelling characters or plots.  An excerpt from the book appears on the website: I challenge you to read and not want more, much more. This is a novel not so much about war or deprivation, although Doerr is very adept at dealing with that material, as it is about human behavior, good and bad. It’s a thought-provoking  book whose literary prowess and fascinating story will stay with you for a long time.

What others are saying:

Says Booklist’s starred review:  “A novel to live in, learn from, and feel bereft over when the last page is turned, Doerr’s magnificently drawn story seems at once spacious and tightly composed. It rests, historically, during the occupation of France during WWII, but brief chapters told in alternating voices give the overall—and long—­narrative a swift movement through time and events. We have two main characters, each one on opposite sides in the conflagration that is destroying Europe. Marie-Laure is a sightless girl who lived with her father in Paris before the occupation; he was a master locksmith for the Museum of Natural History. When German forces necessitate abandonment of the city, Marie-Laure’s father, taking with him the museum’s greatest treasure, removes himself and his daughter and eventually arrives at his uncle’s house in the coastal city of Saint-Malo. Young German soldier Werner is sent to Saint-Malo to track Resistance activity there, and eventually, and inevitably, Marie-Laure’s and Werner’s paths cross. It is through their individual and intertwined tales that Doerr masterfully and knowledgeably re-creates the deprived civilian conditions of war-torn France and the strictly controlled lives of the military occupiers.”

In the The New York Times, Janet Maslin writes: “Boy meets girl in Anthony Doerr’s hauntingly beautiful new book, but the circumstances are as elegantly circuitous as they can be…surprisingly fresh and enveloping…What’s unexpected about its impact is that the novel does not regard Europeans’ wartime experience in a new way. Instead, Mr. Doerr’s nuanced approach concentrates on the choices his characters make and on the souls that have been lost, both living and dead. “

Publishers Weekly says in its starred review: “In 1944, the U.S. Air Force bombed the Nazi-occupied French coastal town of St. Malo. Doerr starts his story just before the bombing, then goes back to 1934 to describe two childhoods: those of Werner and Marie-Laure. We meet Werner as a tow-headed German orphan whose math skills earn him a place in an elite Nazi training school—saving him from a life in the mines, but forcing him to continually choose between opportunity and morality. Marie-Laure is blind and grows up in Paris, where her father is a locksmith for the Museum of Natural History, until the fall of Paris forces them to St. Malo, the home of Marie-Laure’s eccentric great-uncle, who, along with his longtime housekeeper, joins the Resistance. Doerr throws in a possibly cursed [diamond] and the Nazi gemologist searching for it, and weaves in radio, German propaganda, coded partisan messages, scientific facts, and Jules Verne. Eventually, the bombs fall, and the characters’ paths converge, before diverging in the long aftermath that is the rest of the 20th century. If a book’s success can be measured by its ability to move readers and the number of memorable characters it has, Story Prize–winner Doerr’s novel triumphs on both counts. Along the way, he convinces readers that new stories can still be told about this well-trod period, and that war—despite its desperation, cruelty, and harrowing moral choices—cannot negate the pleasures of the world

The Portland Oregonian says: “Exquisite…All the Light We Cannot See, 10 years under construction, is the written equivalent of a Botticelli painting or a Michelangelo sculpture—as filled with light and beauty as the landscapes, museums, and cathedrals…in Rome…Meticulously researched and chock full of beautiful imagery…Nothing short of brilliant, All the Light We Cannot See gives off the kind of mesmerizing and legend-making light as that of the mysterious diamond that sits in the center of the story.”

An Amazon Best Book of the Month, May 2014, review says: “Does the world need yet another novel about WWII? It does when the novel is as inventive and beautiful as this one by Anthony Doerr. In fact, All the Light We Cannot See–while set mostly in Germany and France before and during the war–is not really a “war novel”. Yes, there is fear and fighting and disappearance and death, but the author’s focus is on the interior lives of his two characters. Marie Laure is a blind 14-year-old French girl who flees to the countryside when her father disappears from Nazi-occupied Paris. Werner is a gadget-obsessed German orphan whose skills admit him to a brutal branch of Hitler Youth. Never mind that their paths don’t cross until very late in the novel, this is not a book you read for plot (although there is a wonderful, mysterious subplot about a stolen gem). This is a book you read for the beauty of Doerr’s writing– “Abyss in her gut, desert in her throat, Marie-Laure takes one of the cans of food…”–and for the way he understands and cherishes the magical obsessions of childhood. Marie Laure and Werner are never quaint or twee. Instead they are powerful examples of the way average people in trying times must decide daily between morality and survival.”

In its starred review, Kirkus Reviews says: “Doerr presents us with two intricate stories, both of which take place during World War II; late in the novel, inevitably, they intersect. . . . Marie-Laure’s father was a locksmith and craftsman who made scale models of cities that Marie-Laure studied so she could travel around on her own. He also crafted clever and intricate boxes, within which treasures could be hidden. Parallel to the story of Marie-Laure we meet Werner and Jutta Pfennig, a brother and sister, both orphans who have been raised in the Children’s House outside Essen, in Germany. Through flashbacks we learn that Werner had been a curious and bright child who developed an obsession with radio transmitters and receivers, both in their infancies during this period. Eventually, Werner goes to a select technical school and then, at 18, into the Wehrmacht, where his technical aptitudes are recognized and he’s put on a team trying to track down illegal radio transmissions. Etienne and Marie-Laure are responsible for some of these transmissions, but Werner is intrigued since what she’s broadcasting is innocent—she shares her passion for Jules Verne by reading aloud 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A further subplot involves Marie-Laure’s father’s having hidden a valuable diamond, one being tracked down by Reinhold von Rumpel, a relentless German sergeant-major. Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.”

When is it available?

This remarkable book is at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Mark Twain branch.

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