A rich historical fiction work that offers hope in the midst of war-torn France.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Scribner, 2014. 531 pages.
Reading Level: Adult (Ages 16 and up)
Recommended For: Teens and adults, ages 15 and up
Marie-Laure, blind since age 6, cherishes the intricately detailed three-dimensional map of their city her father made her–should anything happen to him. Prescient since the two live in a France that is rapidly being taken over by the Nazis. The inevitable comes, and Marie-Laure and her father flee their city for the countryside and a grumpy old relative. But the father is carrying a secret that the Nazis very much desire. When he goes missing, Marie-Laure’s great uncle and his housekeeper step in to help the girl navigate their new town. Across the miles, a young German boy shows great aptitude for radio work even though he is a mere orphan. Quickly rising in the Nazi ranks (albeit against his better judgment at times), Werner longs for the times when he and his sister huddled around a contraband radio, listening to a strange Frenchman and the music he played. When the Nazis come to Marie-Laure’s town, Werner is one of their number. And their stories collide, swirling together much like the waves Marie-Laure hears and the music memories Werner clings to.
Sometimes, a best seller earns its place because of a powerful story. Sometimes, the writing itself is exquisite with perfect sentences, strong imagery, and skillful pacing. Perhaps the characters are memorable and reflect the essence of humanity in ways myriad readers recognize. All the Light We Cannot See accomplishes each of these things in a larger than life story. Ultimately hopeful, Doerr gives us a story that is part mystery, part love story, part history. Wartime is full of hardships, and Doerr doesn’t hide those, but the focus of the story is on Marie-Laure’s bravery in the midst of her blindness, her uncle’s newly awakened courage, Werner’s bravery and sacrificial love, and the courage of a small group of villagers when the enemy comes to town. This is a novel written for the adult market, but it is surprisingly “clean”: Minimal language, sex, and violence (although they are present, they are fairly tame compared to much teen fiction!). The protagonists are teenagers themselves through much of the book, making it accessible to teens. A great book for parents and teens to read, enjoy, and discuss together. Ask each other what you would have done in the shoes of various characters, to what extent you would stand up for a friend, and how you might overcome handicaps such as Marie-Laure’s blindness or Werner’s poverty. You might also discuss the gift of music, the ways in which people used their gifts to help others and fight against evil (or used their gifts for ill), and what you think of the ending.
Cautions: Sexuality (an unwed liaison, references to soldiers’ likely treatment of victims), Violence (war-time crimes), Language (minimal)
Overall Rating: 4.75
Worldview Rating: 4.5
Artistic Rating: 5.0
For another WWII book that crosses over from the teen to adult market, check out Salt to the Sea.