Tuesday, September 15, 2015

contemporary interlude #4: All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

Scribner, 2014
530 pp

"...mathematically, all of light is invisible"

All the Light We Cannot See is a novel I probably wouldn't have bought when out looking for something new to read, but it was an Indiespensable pick sent to me by Powells book store.  Despite all of the hype it was getting at the time, it's been sitting on my shelves for a long time now unread.  However, earlier in the year, a number of people in my book group thought they'd might like to read it, so I took it out, cleaned off the shelf dust and read it, since it's the first book-group read after our summer hiatus.  In the meantime, the book won the Pulitzer, so I was, of course, pretty eager to get to it.  Once again, I a) am torn in my reaction towards this novel, and b) find that I am once again the proverbial fish swimming upstream against the tide of readers who LOVED this book or thought it was the best novel they'd read all year.  There are spoilers below, so proceed at your own risk. 

Let's get the positives out first.  I think Mr. Doerr is a good writer, although there are a lot of issues around structure and plot points that I have with this book.  There were moments where I couldn't help but to get caught up in the story because, well, I love reading about this period in history.  Describing the panic, the uncertainty, and the realization of the French people that the Nazis were in their country to stay was very well done, and I especially enjoyed the sections describing the steps taken to safeguard national treasures in the museum of natural history. I felt Doerr was at his very best though when writing the scenes depicting Werner's time in the Hitler Youth academy -- when these scenes cut to another, I couldn't wait to get back to them. My god. I was just floored at how young children were taken into this place --  where "only the purest, only the strongest" would be admitted -- and then taught most brutally that weakness of any sort would not be tolerated.   And then, there's the story of Frederick, who refuses to become like everyone else; what happened to him just about had me in tears.  To me, if the author had written only about the Hitler Youth academy and the things that happened there combined with Frederick's story,  that would have made for beyond-excellent, gut-wrenching reading.  

On the other hand, I wasn't too far into the novel before I realized that overall, this is a YA story set in Occupied France. I'm not very fond of YA novels as a general rule, and as the whole book is playing out I'm seeing the movie running through my head with the brightest young stars of today (I don't know who they are since I don't really watch this sort of thing) playing the lead roles of Werner and Marie-Laure.  Second, and in one of the most unforgivable aspects of this novel, I knew exactly how this story was going to play out, after Marie-Laure's great-uncle Etienne revealed himself as the voice behind the radio broadcasts Werner and Jutta used to listen to as children.  Considering that that happens on page 159, there really isn't much left in the way of surprises in this book.  Third, I don't get the way the author cut his story timewise.  Normally time shifts don't bother me, but this time around I found myself having to go backwards in the novel to remember what happened in what year.  It's jagged and extremely disconcerting, but even worse, it makes absolutely NO SENSE.  

Yes, yes, I know, it's one of everyone's favorite books, but it definitely wasn't one of mine.  I also figure I'll be the only one not going gaga over it at this month's book group meeting, opening myself up to whatever scorn the rest of the women want to heap upon me.  Sorry - I just can't help it. 

Here's The New Republic's Review, a bit of a naysayer, while Amanda Vaill at the Washington Post thinks otherwise.  


  1. I felt exactly the same as you - although I didn't actually make it to the end as I was so unimpressed. I just felt it so was ordinary - I'd heard similar stories many times before and (because as you so rightly say, it was predictable) I became bored and abandoned it. At least you're not alone in not loving this :-)

    1. That makes me feel not so much like the Lone Ranger here. Thanks! I just couldn't get past the ending being telegraphed so early on -- that really, really bugged me!


Say what you will, but at least try to be nice about it.