Saturday, November 22, 2014

Book Review: "All the Light We Cannot See" by Anthony Doerr

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

I don't know why I waited so long to read Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See. I've loved his other books—in fact, his 2010 story collection, Memory Wall, was among the best books I read that year, so I know he's a tremendously talented writer.

Maybe I hesitated because the book has already begun showing up on a number of year-end "best" lists, and lately I've had a bit of a disconnect between those the critics label as best of the year and those of which I'm most enamored. Well, I needn't have worried, because Doerr's latest is as good, and beautifully written, as I hoped it might be.

In the early 1940s, the world is on the brink of war. Marie-Laure is a 12-year-old girl living in Paris with her father, a locksmith at the Museum of Natural History. Although Marie-Laure went blind at the age of six, she has a tremendous thirst for knowledge and a passion about the world around her, particularly the natural world. Ever-protective of his daughter, Marie-Laure's father built a model of their Paris neighborhood so she can navigate the streets and always find her way home.

Meanwhile, in a German mining town, young Werner Pfennig is growing up with his sister, Jutta, in an orphanage. When the two discover a radio, it opens up a world of dreams and information. Werner also discovers his ability to repair and build radios, as well as his ability to grasp complicated mathematical and scientific concepts. This intelligence catches the interest of a Nazi officer, who sees that Werner is enrolled in an elite Hitler Youth school, where the fervor for perfection and rooting out inferiority begins to turn him into a person he doesn't recognize.

As war closes in, Marie-Laure and her father flee Paris and head to the seaside town of Saint-Malo, where her eccentric great-uncle Etienne lives. Etienne has never been the same since the first World War, and he is unprepared for just how profoundly his life—and the lives of those around him—will be affected by Marie-Laure's presence, as well as the town's resistance to the Nazi occupation. And Werner finds himself on the front lines, as he is part of a team tracking down those using radios to subvert the Nazis.

Werner and Marie-Laure's lives will intersect in a profound way, both when they are at one of their weakest moments. And this encounter will have an indelible impact on the lives of many for years to come.

"To men like that, time was a surfeit, a barrel they watched slowly drain. When really, he thinks, it's a glowing puddle you carry in your hands; you should spend all your energy protecting it. Fighting for it. Working so hard not to spill one single drop."

This is an exquisite, wonderfully told story. The characters are tremendously vivid and came to life for me, and I found myself fully immersed in what was happening to them. Although the book unfolds slowly, I was never bored, and although I had some suspicions about how certain events would be resolved, I felt some suspense at what would happen. Doerr is truly so talented, and although the book's switching back forth between two points in time sometimes made me take a moment to re-orient myself to where I was in the plot, I enjoyed this book so, so much.

If you don't need a book to move at breakneck speed, but you want a story to savor, pick up All the Light We Cannot See. This is one of those books I could see as a fantastic movie as well, but the book is so worth reading.

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