All the Light We Cannot See (Discussion)

All the Light we Cannot SeeHi, guys! I hope you all enjoyed this book as much as I did. For me, trying to pick out one book to read is like picking out my favorite star…I pretty much like them all because they’re all brilliant in their own way! (OK…maybe not ALL, but you get the idea.) But after reading reviews about All the Light We Cannot See, if felt like the right one for this month’s book club. 

I’ve read so many WWII/Holocaust novels both fiction and nonfiction, watched documentaries, seen movies, been to museums and concentration camps, etc. I used to be obsessed with the topic throughout junior and high school. So I was actually a little hesitant to read this book because I feel like I’ve covered that topic pretty thoroughly for myself, but I was pleasantly surprised to find a completely new take, new viewpoint on the subject. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book from the standpoint of a Hitler youth. It was fascinating and horrifying at the same time to watch the brainwashing taking place and how Werner reacted to all of it. 

On top of that, Anthony Doerr’s writing is so beautiful. It was such a pleasure to read just for the sake of the writing. Moehringer, author of The Tender Bar, said, “Anthony Doerr sees the world as a scientist, but feels it as a poet…” I think that sums it up precisely. I haven’t read any of Doerr’s other works, but I definitely intend to. How about you? 

OK…I could talk about this book endlessly, but this is a post, not a dissertation! So let’s get to some questions! (THERE WILL BE SPOILERS!)

1. First of all, did you like the book overall? Why or why not? Along with that, did you like Doerr’s style of writing? 

This is always a big deal to me, but I know not everyone thinks about it. I can hate a story but love the writing, or vice versa. In this case, I loved both the story and the writing. I love a book that's a page turner yet savory at the same time. You can't wait to read the next sentence, but you can't help but dwell on the one you just read because there's so much meaning packed into it and it's just so beautifully and well-written. This might seem a bit sentimental or dramatic, but nothing pleases more than a well-constructed sentence. Except maybe a well-constructed dessert. :) So Doerr’s style suited me perfectly. I love poetic, beautiful, well-written descriptions, but not when they go on for pages. He was so succinct, putting a whole world into one sentence. Like this one when he was talking about the boys at school with Werner, “They are each a mound of clay, and the potter that is the portly, shiny-faced commandant is throwing four hundred identical pots.” I was underlining so many great sentences that I just stopped at some point because there were too many! 

2. Along with style, how did you feel about the time going back and forth between future and present? 

Usually this doesn’t bother me in a novel, and I often like it. But in this book, I didn’t. I feel like it would’ve been easier to understand and just as dramatic and interesting if it had been written chronologically. There was so much intensity at the end of the story that kept getting interrupting by returning to the present. So I wasn’t crazy about that. But that’s just me! 

3. Favorite character? 

I loved all the characters and how they were developed and the roles they represented, but I really loved Madame Manec and the part she played in the story. I have a thing for spunky women, and she fit that role to a T. 🙂 I was so excited for her when she got involved in the resistance, and a couple of her lines seemed to sum up the book for me. “‘Seventy-six years old,’ she whispers, ‘and I can still feel like this? Like a little girl with stars in my eyes?’” Doing something right, noble, just brings life to your veins, is rejuvenating. 

And then this conversation between her and Etienne when she’s trying to get him involved: 

“Then help us.”
“I don’t want to make trouble, Madame.”
“Isn’t doing nothing a kind of troublemaking?”
“Doing nothing is doing nothing.”
“Doing nothing is as good as collaborating.”

4. What do you think? Do you agree with Madame? Is doing nothing a kind of troublemaking…as good as collaborating? 

I tend to agree with her. This was something Werner had to deal with when he stood by and watched Fredde get bullied and beat. Think of all the people who stood by and did nothing. If they had all risen up and done something, what changes might’ve been made, people been saved so much sooner? You can’t redo history, but you can stop it from being repeated in the same way. I’m getting preachy…let’s move on. 🙂

5. What did you think of the main character being blind? How did this change the story for you? 

I thought it was fascinating to “see” through Marie-Laure’s eyes. I thought Doerr did an excellent job of helping us use different senses to imagine what was going on in the story. Though because she’d had help all along, it wasn’t until everyone was gone that I really was able to imagine what it would be like to be blind. (As much as one can without actually experiencing it, of course.) I felt terrified for her and terrified at that thought of not being able to see and especially having no one to help you see. I thought this gave an extra texture to the story that wouldn’t have been there otherwise. 

6. Is it easy or difficult for you to believe in curses and things of that nature? The supernatural, if you will? More specifically, did you believe that if Werner had had the stone at the end, he might’ve been saved? 

Though I thought the ending was tragic and not the way I wanted it to go, I felt like Werner did the right thing by letting that cursed stone go. It was the best way for him to end his life…doing the right thing, which he’d struggled to do all along. Even if it wasn’t truly cursed, it was obviously causing problems for people who obsessed about it and just seemed like a dangerous thing to have around. Do I think he would’ve survived if he’d had the stone with him? That’s hard to say…especially since this is fiction, but the romantic dreamer in me wants to believe the stone would’ve saved him, and then he could’ve gotten rid of it. :) 

7. Was anyone else annoyed by the conversations that happened at the end of the story???

I wanted Jutta and Volkheimer to have a much deeper conversation, and I wanted the same for Jutta and Marie-Laure. There was so much to say and so much that was left unsaid. I especially wanted Jutta to tell Marie-Laure that Werner loved her. A person can live on that kind of information for a lifetime! But perhaps the past is best left in the past, and it’s best to leave old wounds alone. But no, I would’ve wanted to know the person who saved me was also in love with me. 

8. What did the title mean to you? 

At first and even throughout the book I felt that it was talking about goodness that we can’t see. Of course, with Marie-Laure being blind, the title could be read literally for her. But Doerr explains that he meant it literally…as in the literal light we can’t see such as in radio waves, and he also meant it metaphorically. He said, “…that there are countless invisible stories still buried within World War II — that stories of ordinary children, for example, are a kind of light we do not typically see. Ultimately, the title is intended as a suggestion that we spend too much time focused on only a small slice of the spectrum of possibility.”

I could ask a million more questions about Werner’s training, the events with Fredde, what happened to Jutta, etc. This book was so rich. But I’ll let you have a turn now! Feel free to discuss anything about the questions above or add anything that really stood out to you that we haven’t covered yet. Looking forward to reading your comments! –Sarah

P.S. Big thanks again to Sarah for moderating this month! Also for any of you who have asked, we will be taking a break from the book club next month. I'd like to change up how we present it and offer interaction, so we're looking into ideas on that in the mean time.

  • I loooved this book. I love his style of writing, and I think having a main character who cannot see was a beautiful way to display his power as a poet. The only thing I didn’t lack was how the stories didn’t really tie together until the end. I loved both stories, but I wish there had been more of a connection earlier on.

  • I pretty much agree with everything you said. I loved the style, reading about ‘the other side’ of the war, not really liking the jump between times, and getting to see Paris and then Saint Malo through Marie-Laure’s fingertips. It was exquisite to read.

  • I loved this book! I couldn’t stop reading it. I didn’t mind how it jumped in time – I actually think it might have pulled me into the story more. In a sense, I was a bit disappointed in how it ended, because I tend to believe we have enough tragedy in the real world, so why not have happy endings in books and movies? But this is a story about a real event that didn’t end happily for so many people involved, so the sad ending didn’t really bother me. Also, I guess I just enjoyed the writing and the story so much that I didn’t need to have a happy ending in order to love it.

  • Very much enjoyed reading this book; it is beautifully written. However, I agree that the story would have been just as good if it had not jumped around within the timeline. I don’t think that really added anything for me.

    Thank you for this including this book in your book club!

  • It’s so well written but it took me a little bit to get into it. You have to read carefully and pick up every word which can be hard for me because I’m a very fast reader. I liked the ending because it satisfied both the part of me that wants every story to end neatly, with everything ending up how you want it to and the part of me that doesn’t want that for being too cheesy and predictable. My biggest gripe is that I like to look ahead to see how many chapters are left and the titles of the chapters would give away what happened in them!

  • i love this book so much more than i thought i would. you hit the nail on the head with your answer to question 1. i love it when i get an incredible story and great prose in one book. when you have to pause and just soak in a sentence because it’s so brilliantly crafted, i did that a lot in this book. the characters were fascinating and i particularly like the pov of marie-laure.

    i actually like the way it jumped around. i thought it built up the tension and suspense.

    and thanks for sharing that quote from doerr about the different meanings of the title! incredible.

  • I thought it would be cool if there was a way to have a forum for the book club. It seems like it would be an easier way for more people to participate! and there could multiple topics for each book.

  • I haven’t read this book yet, so I skimmed this post to avoid any spoilers, but it’s on my Amazon wishlist and I can’t wait to read it- I read “About Grace” by the same author (I think that was the title) and it was so unexpectedly beautiful – I would definitely recommend it if you haven’t already read it! And I will be back to read this post in its lovely entirety once I’ve read the book 🙂

  • I LOVED the writing style of this book, it reminded me of one of my favorites – The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (which you should read, if you haven’t.) I liked how realistic All The Light We Cannot See is, and that it didn’t romanticize the history. When I read the sleeve, I thought it was going to be a romance book! I agree that the viewpoint from someone in the Hitler Youth was fascinating (I too have read a lot of WWII / Holocaust books) as well as seeing the point of view from the supporting characters on Werner’s parts of the story – the Germans that didn’t ask for the war, the people who were just trying to live their lives.

    The only part I wasn’t fond of was the chapter on Jutta’s life right after the war when the Russians came through her town. Not just because what she went through was horrifying (which it definitely was) but because that chapter didn’t really flow with the rest of the book’s storyline.

    Looking forward to what you do with book club! I’ve enjoyed reading these past two months!

  • I agree that you had to read carefully. I kept flipping back to see what had happened so I wasn’t confused. I don’t normally have to do that. Not sure why that was. I also agree about the ending. I always want a happy ending, but know that’s not realistic. So I deal with whatever I’m given by the author. 🙂 -Sarah

  • Yes, yes, yes! 🙂 It sounds like we’re in pretty good agreement, except for the timeline. But I’m glad others liked it. It’d be a shame for the author if no one liked it! -Sarah

  • I can’t remember everything about this book because I read it a few months ago but wow, it captivate me. I didn’t know how much of a grip it had on me until it ended. I think Doerr did a wonderful job and I think the points you address as being frustrating are just realistic. It was a dark time and unfortunately things had tragic endings. I love how Doerr left so many open-ended questions. I think war is like that–stories that begin but never really end.

    All the Light We Cannot See was definitely both a literal and a symbolic title. I also think that the way the story is formed, two strangers who have a strong connection but whose paths cross for only a fraction of a time in their lifetime–that connection is sort of light the light–you can’t see it but it has great energy, so much that it can change you forever.

    I reviewed this in my blog: http://musedenuit.blogspot.com/2015/02/book-review-all-light-we-cannot-see-by.html and I’ll probably revisit this book in about a year.

  • I loved this book! I liked the timeline jumping around, but I agree with you about Jutta’s conversations at the end…too short!

  • Hi!! I loved reading this month’s book! I loved the writing and I liked the jumping timeline, usually with this ww2 books you don’t get to see what happened after and I loved knowing a little bit about the survivors, even if it was devastating to read about Jutta still being so sad. I loved reading about Saint Malo too, I didn’t knew it existed and now I want to go visit 🙂
    The ending was pretty devastating but I loved how he tied up the story because when I was halfway through the book I was afraid he would finish it in a cheesy way and that would be really hard to believe when everyone else had such terrible things happening to them. So they got a little bit of closure and the chance to meet each other and then life happened again. I don’t know, I thought it was sweet. Marie-Laure’s child also made me happy, I was afraid she would be so lonely after Etienne passed away, and those two last years seemed like a delight.
    Anyway! It was a great book, I’m happy that you chose it and I’m looking forward to the next and revamped book club!

  • I saw this in the bookstore last month and contemplated on whether or not I should buy it! I was really fascinated but ended up buying another book. (So I skipped your spoilers) but these comments make me want to buy it now! The cover is simply gorgeous for me.

    THOUGHTS IN TIFFANY BLUE

  • I loved the book – I too did NOT like the fact that Werner got killed – I was really believing that he would get away and find Marie-Laure and they would be happy forever after – so when he stepped on that mine – I actually couldn’t read the book for a few days after that – I was upset. BUT I do love the book – it was a GREAT one!!

  • I loved this book, but the jumping back and forth bothered me too. Sometimes I had to go back to the beginning of the chapter to remind myself what year it was, which was annoying.

    It’s hard to say who my favorite character was… but I may have to say ML’s father Daniel. He was the most compassionate person, always making sure ML could see the world though she was blind. Even after he was arrested, in the letters he wrote her he lied about the prison so she’d have comfort in him being gone. He loved her completely and consistently.

    Finally, I have to say that I was intrigued by ML’s reading Twenty Thousand Leagues so much that I’m going to read it this month! It’s free on iBooks, read with me!

  • I’ll definitely put that on my list of “to read”!

    I agree with everything you said, including your thoughts on the chapter on Jutta. It was unsettling, but I couldn’t put my finger on why past the actual event. But I think you nailed it…it didn’t really flow with the rest of the book and seemed kind of random. -Sarah

  • I agree…Daniel was a great character and it was heartbreaking that he disappeared. But that was realistic too.

    And I agree about Twenty Thousand Leagues. I’ve never read it either and want to do so! Thanks for the tip! -Sarah

  • having trouble finding April’s book selection. can you tell me where to find it on the blog or what the book is.

    Thanks
    Kim

  • “I love a book that’s a page turner yet savory at the same time. You can’t wait to read the next sentence, but you can’t help but dwell on the one you just read because there’s so much meaning packed into it and it’s just so beautifully and well-written.”

    AMEN! I whole-heartedly agree. But I have to say I loved going back and forth between time periods as opposed to reading it chronologically. It was a challenge since I didn’t know who was who, but I loved piecing it together as I read more. And then it also added to the page-turner aspect. When Marie-Laure realizes that Von Rumpel is in the house and then it cuts back to a couple years prior, I screamed inside! I needed to know what happened and I love that the author brought out that emotion in me.

  • I loved this book. I had seen it on Amazon and for one reason or another just never downloaded it to my Kindle, so happy you suggested it and prompted me to get it. I’m about half way through the book so can only answer a few questions.

    1. First of all, did you like the book overall? Why or why not? Along with that, did you like Doerr’s style of writing?

    I loved the book. I love that the author told the story from two perspectives. I also found it fascinating how the author was able to build a feeling of empathy for Werner. We are taught only one side of the German experience and it is hard to imagine or understand what that experience was like and how it got so very out of control. I found myself at time having a tremendous amount of understanding and empathy for Werner and wondered throughout the book what I would have done if in his place.

    2. Along with style, how did you feel about the time going back and forth between future and present?

    Hated it! I got lost between the time periods. As we were told what time it was I found myself asking what the significance of it was. I finally realized about 25% into the book that I was jumping between two main time periods which helped. I agree with you that the book would have been just as great if it was told sequentially.

    3. Favorite Character?

    This is hard, I loved Marie Laure, Etinne, and Madame Manec. Marie struck me as a strong, smart character. She was lovable and curious. Etinne was just an interesting and different guy. And Madame Manec, I saw her as this beautiful, nurturing character. I was sad when she passed in the book. I could feel what a loss that was for both Marie and Etinne.

  • As for Werner, he had the opportunity to have the stone, which would have saved him, but ruined the lives of everyone around him. At that point it was late, directly or indirectly lives were lost and ruined all around him. I thought it was interesting that we thought he had the stone because he had the house it had been stored in. When he died, I thought. “Well the stone isn’t cursed/blessed after all. But then it turns out he didn’t have it, he would have lived if he did. But I think by then there was no going back for him. Once he made the choice to save Marie Laure he could only think of the other lives he didn’t choose to save.

    I loved this book so much. Thanks for your thoughts!

  • I really really loved this book…it was so beautifully written! Jumping around in time didn’t bug me, but I had to flip around in the book a bit to remind myself of what had happened in that part of the timeline before. Although I loved Doerr’s writing and loved the story – it has stayed with me long after finishing it – I have to say that I thought his characters (much as I adored them) weren’t exactly believable. A bit idealized, perhaps. So I hope to see more character development in his future works, but really, that’s just me being picky.

  • I felt the same way! I was so frustrated when I had to go back to the past, but it was definitely clever writing to create those emotions in us! -Sarah

  • I really liked the jumping since it was done in a way I haven’t seen as often. Starting with a wide time gap then filling in the gap back and forward like stitching two pieces of time together. I also think that Werner leaving the stone was necessary. He’d struggled with weakness throughout the book, doing things he knew he shouldn’t, not standing up for Fredde, etc. In the end of the book Marie-Laure remembers what Dr. Geffard said about the stone, “Worth so much. Only the strongest people can turn away from feelings like that”. It was the last act of strength from Werner and hopefully brought him some peace.

    If you are starting this book and struggling to get into it, it will capture you if you press on! Initially I wasn’t as drawn to read it, but I’m so glad I continued. This is by far one of the best books I’ve read and I can’t stop thinking about it!

  • 1. First of all, did you like the book overall? Why or why not? Along with that, did you like Doerr’s style of writing?

    I thoroughly enjoyed this book! It was such a page turner! Even though it’s a BIG book, I enjoyed the author’s poetic writing style and flew through the chapters in less than a month.

    2. Along with style, how did you feel about the time going back and forth between future and present?

    I read the book so quickly, that the time flipping back and forth didn’t bother me.

    3. Favorite character?

    My favorite character was Marie Laure. I loved how spunky and bright Marie Laure is and how she carefully observes the world around her through feel and touch. I liked that she is a female character interested in science and biology. And I loved how brave she was hiding in the attic, picking up messages at the bakery for Madame Manec and broadcasting messages with the radio when her uncle was unable.

    4. What do you think? Do you agree with Madame? Is doing nothing a kind of troublemaking…as good as collaborating?

    I think that one of the overall themes in this book is that doing nothing is as good as troublemaking- or that if you’re not voicing yourself against the violence than your are for it.

    5. What did you think of the main character being blind? How did this change the story for you?

    I think that Marie Laure being blind helped the reader to gain a broader and more detailed perspective of the world around Marie Laure- Paris, the museum and Saint-Malo, as she descibed the number of drains she passed by, the sounds and feel of the creatures in the sea.

    6. Is it easy or difficult for you to believe in curses and things of that nature? The supernatural, if you will? More specifically, did you believe that if Werner had had the stone at the end, he might’ve been saved?

    I find it difficult to believe in curses and things of that nature, but the book does lead the reader to believe that Marie Laure and her family were cursed by the stone. I believe that if Werner had the stone in the end, he might have been saved but his sister and orphanage caregiver might have been lost.

    7. Was anyone else annoyed by the conversations that happened at the end of the story???

    Kind of. As I was reading I had thought (and hoped) that Marie Laure and Werner might end up together in some way. When it became apparent that that would not happen I began to hope that Jutte and Marie Laure’s conversation might inspire a friendship or rekindle some unrequited love from Marie Laure towards Werner, but in hind-site I realize that the characters barely knew each other.

    8. What did the title mean to you?

    I initially read the title literally as pertaining to Marie Laure and her blindness and later referring to the good inside each of us. I didn’t catch the radio reference as quickly.

  • I want to join the bookclub, but I cannot find a list of the books we will be reading the next months? Is there anyway ABM could post some kind of list? 🙂 🙂

  • 1. First of all, did you like the book overall? Why or why not? Along with that, did you like Doerr’s style of writing?

    I loved Doerr’s style of writing. He writes the way you dream about books being written, eloquently, beautifully and with interesting use of metaphors. I felt like the book was written in such a way that once i opened the pages i was pulled under and into his story.

    2. Along with style, how did you feel about the time going back and forth between future and present?

    I have to admit at the first time change i was a bit uncomfortable but as the story gained momentum I got used to it and actually thought it brought more to the story. Reading much more like a memory.

    3. Favorite character?

    Potentially Etienne, if most for his part where he tells Marie-Laure something along the lines of that she was the best thing that had ever come into his life. But Also Madame, I also love strong women who do what they believe is right and strive for that.

    4. What do you think? Do you agree with Madame? Is doing nothing a kind of troublemaking…as good as collaborating?

    I agree wholeheartedly BUT then again I am not and have never been in a position like this. I believe that doing nothing is as good as, and can only hope that if it came down to it that I would be strong enough to stand up even if I stood alone.

    6. Is it easy or difficult for you to believe in curses and things of that nature? The supernatural, if you will? More specifically, did you believe that if Werner had had the stone at the end, he might’ve been saved?

    Difficult unless is late at night! I only ever believe what I see with my own eye’s and even then… I think that Werner would still have died at the end, the story was too realistic to suddenly change like that, and also I felt that Werner’s part to play had finished. I was so happy when Marie discovered the key and you knew that after all the conforming that Werner was strong, he was strong for himself and in the end for others if that makes sense. His thought process and constant questioning of the system allows for him to remain a pure character who does what they do to survive. A trait I’m sure applied to many of the women and men on either side of the war.

    7. Was anyone else annoyed by the conversations that happened at the end of the story???

    I liked that they were short that we were expected to make our own assumptions, and also the magnitude of everything that happened probably would leave little room for conversation between strangers who were all once enemies.

    8. What did the title mean to you?

    I thought that it was about the purity of those believed they could beat the war and those who stood up for the right, even if like in Werner’s case he was forced to stand for the wrong. And i thought it was about love, not romantic love but familial love, or kinship. about how those things are still able to exist in the darkest of times.

  • Hi,

    I just wanted to know when you will let us know what is the April Book Selection! I joined the Book Club in January 2015 and I loved everyone of the books you chose. I live in Montréal and my maternal langage is french so I discovered that reading captivating novels really helps me improve my English!

    Thank you (and PS I adore your blog)

    Corinne

  • Oh my gosh, I didn’t read this, so I avoided the spoilers, but I loooove the fact that you incorporated books into your blog. 🙂 That’s so awesome! 10 MORE POINTS TO YOU!! ♥

  • I know i’m a little late to the party but I had this post saved so I could read it after I finished the book 🙂

    i feel like i’m almost haunted by werner in the same way he was haunted by freddie; so much unresolved and unsaid. So I agree, the end could have give us a little more closure, especially when it came to her father! I was really disappointed that marie-laurie lost him without any explanation. I guess that’s the reality of life, but as another reader said, we read to escape tragic realities.

    marie-laurie’s blindness was brilliant b/c it allowed the author to paint the picture for us at every turn, and also feel so much more deeply for her and those around her.

    thank you for allowing readers to engage more, love the book discussions!