All the Light we Cannot See Review: is it as Good as the Critics Say?

NO SPOILERS REVIEW: Find out what our book club thought of All the Light we Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr. Did it live up to our expectations, or would we recommend a different WW2 novel?

The All the Light we Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, book with a cat in the background

Our first book club review is in! The first story we read as a club was All the Light we Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr. This was a WW2 tale surrounding the separate stories of two young teenagers who grow up knowing only war. Will they come out alive and thriving?

The question is, what did our book club members think of our first read together? Here, we’ll be diving into a four-way perspective on this wartime novel. So, to discover a little more about the characters we came across, the story plot line, and each of our thoughts on certain aspects of the tale, read on…

All the Light we Cannot See Characters

Our story flits between the lives of Marie-Laure and Werner, who are two teenagers when WW2 erupts. As we follow through their stories, we see how their lives slowly but surely intertwine. We are also introduced to many more characters along the way, who are all part of their journey, from the beginning to the end of WW2:

  • Marie-Laure LeBlanc: our female protagonist, and a blind French girl, who is very independent, despite her disability. She loves everything to do with the sea; sea creatures, tales of the sea, and sea snails.
  • Werner Pfennig: our male protagonist, and a young German orphan from a mining town, who is extremely intelligent, with a proficiency for radio engineering.
  • Daniel LeBlanc: Marie-Laure’s father, and a locksmith at the Natural History Museum in Paris. He is fiercely protective of his daughter, and ensures she has every opportunity in the world, despite her disability.
  • Uncle Etienne: he is Marie-Laure’s great uncle, and gives them refuge after Paris is plagued by war. After WW1, where his brother died, he has never been the same since, so hasn’t left the house for decades.
  • Madame Manec: the housekeeper at Etienne’s huge house, who takes care of Etienne through his anxious spells, and Marie-Laure throughout her time in Saint-Malo.
  • Jutta Pfennig: she is Werner’s younger sister, and seems to be one of the only ones who sees past Hitler’s message, and knows exactly what he is capable of.
  • Frau Elena: she is the leader of the orphanage in which they grew up, and is the only mother figure Jutta and Werner have ever known.
  • Volkheimer: a giant of a man who is appointed as Werner’s protector early on in school, when Werner becomes a firm helper with the radio machinery for the war. He has a real soft spot for Werner, and has a big heart to match his size.
  • Frederick: Werner’s best friend at the Hitler Youth school, and an avid bird-watcher. He doesn’t really fit in with the other boys, and stands up for himself when they are forced to do unspeakable things. This lands him in hot water, to say the least.
  • Major von Rumple: a sickly, dying jewel collector, whose war mission is to seek out valuable items for Hitler’s museum. His goal throughout the book is to retrieve the rumoured Sea of Flames.
  • The Sea of Flames: this is not necessarily a character, as it is an inanimate object; an extremely valuable stone which is rumoured to have immortalising powers for the owner. However, it takes on a life of its own, putting lives in danger, and creating a separate war, alongside WW2.
The All the Light we Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, book with an orchid in the background

All the Light we Cannot See Plot

As we’ve discussed, Anthony Doerr’s story flits back and forth between the stories of Marie-Laure and Werner, throughout. Here and there, we also see the point of view of other characters, mainly von Rumple. Ultimately, we are rapidly switched from one story to the next, in quick succession.

We are also switched back and forth, less frequently, through time. We begin the tale during the end of the war, showing us where each character has ended up but without context. Then, we have large chunks of story, building up to where we know they will end up. Each story goes as follows:

Marie-Laure’s Story

We begin our tale with Marie-Laure, a blind girl who lives in Paris with her father, Daniel. Their days plod on as normal, in a routine of heading to the Natural History Museum each day, where Daniel works as a locksmith.

Marie-Laure was not always blind, but gradually became so during her early years of life. To help her become independent, Daniel created a to-scale model of the streets where they live to help her get used to its layout. Now, she counts steps and storm drains to get from place to place.

When war breaks out, Marie-Laure and her father have to flee Paris. Little does she know that he is bestowed with a responsibility; the responsibility to look after one of four replicas of the Sea of Flames. Does he have the real gem, or is it just a fake?

They flee to a coastal port called Saint-Malo, where Uncle Etienne and Madame Manec await them. They are welcomed with open arms, but are terrified by the German presence in the area. Soon, they become enveloped in the French resistance, putting their lives at danger for the good of their country.

Werner’s Story

Meanwhile, Werner is living out his days at a German orphanage, scavenging for trinkets with his sister, day in and day out. After finding a radio in a nearby dumpster, Werner soon realises his capability fo all things physics.

When Hitler’s message starts spreading across the country, Werner’s talents reach the ears of a prominent general, who sends him to Schulpforta. This is a school for talented boys, or rich boys; whichever you may be. He is thrilled to finally be leaving the mining town he grew up in, and passes all the entrance exams.

At the school, it’s clear the boys are being groomed for the German army, when the war comes. Werner’s aptitude for radio engineering earns him a spot as one of the teacher’s right-hand men, inventing a useful radio signal tracking tool for the war effort.

Soon, him and Volkheimer are sent to war to track down resistance radios and kill anyone involved. The journey leads them to Saint-Malo, where their war efforts come to a close. What will happen to them when the war is over?

The All the Light we Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, book with light from the window on it

The Book Club Answers Some Questions…

As this is our very first book club pick, we’re very excited to answer some questions for you to help you get to know the story a little better. Here, we’ve provided absolutely no spoilers at all, but have simply given you a small taste of what you can expect from reading Doerr’s WW2 tale.

Different perspectives of the story are pretty apparent here, showing you just how varied a person’s journey when reading can be. So, if you want to get to know the story, to see if it’s for you, check out what our book club members had to say about it…

Did you enjoy reading All the Light we Cannot See?

Joanna: I found this book to be a tricky read, which made it difficult for me to enjoy reading it altogether. I did enjoy the story line, however, I was constantly challenged by the way the writing stopped and started, and didn’t flow naturally. I was also unsure where the story was going, from time to time. Ultimately, I found it to be harder than most to get into, leaving me a little disappointed overall.

Maria: On the whole, I enjoyed reading this book. However, I felt the short chapters and non-linear format should have made it a more compelling read than it was. The book made me aware of the many untold stories of people living through the war, but didn’t really give me the satisfaction of fully knowing the characters as much as I wanted to.

Katherine: Honestly, this isn’t my kind of book so it was a very difficult read for me. I found it hard to get into and understand as there were a lot of jumps in time and characters with similar names. I think it’s the sort of book you need to re read to fully appreciate.

Izzy: Yes. It took me a while to get into it, as there was a lot of introduction and setting the scene. However, once I was invested in the characters, I enjoyed finding out more.

What did you think of the non-linear structure of the story?

Joanna: Although I think this sort of back-and-forth storytelling lent itself to the plot line, I ultimately found it got in the way of my enjoyment. Having such a stop-and-start read meant I struggled to get immersed in the story, so I never quite left my own mind completely.

Maria: I liked the way the story moved from the present, to the past, and back again. It was interesting to see how Marie-Laure and Werner arrived at the point the book started, and then carried on into the future. The chapters were short and alternated between the different characters. I found this quite frustrating at times because I wanted to stay with each person for longer.

Katherine: Again, I found it very difficult to understand because of this. It was interesting to read, from both character’s perspectives, but felt like two separate books.

Izzy: It made sense for the storyline, because you were following Marie-Laure’s and Werner’s stories simultaneously through time. If it was structured so that you had one characters story and then the other, it wouldn’t have worked as well. It also made you want to read on, for example, if a chapter on Werner ended on a cliff hanger, you’d have to read a chapter on Marie-Laure before you could find out what happened to Werner. 

Who was your favourite character and why?

Joanna: My favourite character had to be Volkheimer, mainly due to his protective nature over Werner. I found him to be the most surprising character, and I enjoyed reading his parts of the story, feeling at a loss when he wasn’t always there.

Maria: My favourite character was Werner. I liked him because of the constant battle he had between his duty to his country, and the path he was being forced to take, and his own conscience and what he thought to be right.

Katherine: My favourite character was Werner, as he stayed true to himself and his morals. It made the Hitler Youth even more horrifying, as you could see how influential it had the potential to be.

Izzy: Probably Werner, because he’s just a really likeable person. 

The All the Light we Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, book blurb

Which plot line did you enjoy reading most and why? Was it Marie-Laure, Werner, or Von Rumpel?

Joanna: My favourite certainly flitted back and forth between them, however, I landed on Werner’s tale as my favourite. I liked to hear about the action of the war, rather than the resistance, and particularly enjoyed the parts when Werner was at Schulpforta. It really shone a new light on the plight of the young German boys at this time in history; they had no choice.

Maria: I think the plot line for Marie-Laure was the most enjoyable, because of the  relationships she built with those she lived with. I wanted more from these though.

Katherine: Marie-Laure; her innocence in comparison to the war was very prominent, and gave a break from the harsh reality of Werner’s plot line.

Izzy: I can’t decide between Marie-Laure’s or Werner’s. I enjoyed Marie-Laure’s as she has a lovely relationship with her father, and develops relationships with her uncle Etienne and Madame Manec. You also learns about the Sea of Flames, which sets the scene for the rest of the story. I enjoyed Werner’s because of his and his sister’s outlook on the Nazis, and his involvement in the Hitler Youth. You learn how Werner isn’t on board with it, but he has to be as his intelligence is an asset to them. 

Do you think Marie-Laure being blind added to the story and why?

Joanna: Obviously, without her blindness, the model cities wouldn’t have featured, which definitely lent itself to the plot, at times. However, due to her complete independence, I felt that her blindness didn’t really add to the story, as she was completely capable.

Maria: I feel not being able to see meant Marie-Laure’s bravery shone through her vulnerability.

Katherine: Yes, I always enjoy descriptive text, and her blindness lent itself very well to this aspect. I found myself reminding myself that she was blind and re-realising how awful it must have been, especially at that time.

Izzy: Yes. The author’s method of description was much more physical rather than visual: he describes things by the way they feel rather than the way they look. It also put Marie-Laure in danger more than she would have been if she wasn’t blind. 

What did you think about the more German perspective we had of the war in this story?

Joanna: Learning about history at school I feel was usually from a British perspective, and never really about how the German people were brainwashed into cooperating. Seeing this from the perspective of civilians in Doerr’s story was really eye-opening. I really enjoyed this new perspective.

Maria: I enjoyed the opportunity of seeing the war through the eyes of the Germans. It served as a reminder that all the lives lost in any war are just so pointless to the people.

Katherine: It was interesting to be reminded that not everyone was a cold Nazi during this time, as this is what we are taught to think when learning about WW2, especially in school.

Izzy: It was interesting to read Werner’s side of the story, as he didn’t agree with Hitler’s ideologies, but was surrounded by people who did. 

The All the Light we Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, book with a plant in the background

Who do you think was the real antagonist throughout and why?

Joanna: Although von Rumple is our story villain, we can’t deny that he is only acting in his own best interests, as everyone at this time was. However, we can’t ignore the ultimate antagonist, and that is Hitler who caused it all, so is always the true villain.

Maria: For me the real antagonist was Rumpel, by his association with the sea of flames.

Katherine: I feel the older boys at the Hitler Youth stood out to me as the antagonists, not necessarily one character in particular.

Izzy: The Nazis, such as the people running the Hitler Youth school. Werner goes to this school, and some children’s treatment is brutal. Character wise, Von Rumpel seeks the Sea of Flames to the point that he’s willing to lie and kill for it. However, you learn why he wants it so badly. 

Who do you think demonstrated the most bravery throughout?

Joanna: Every character shows courage throughout, in some way shape or form, which makes it tricky to pick one. Some that stand out to me, though, are Jutta, Frederick, and Daniel, but I think Frederick was probably the bravest of them all. He refused to do some awful things because of his morals, even though he knew the consequences would be sinister.

Maria: Werner.

Katherine: Frederick.

Izzy: Werner, but I don’t think I can say why without spoiling the story!

Did you find the ending satisfying? No spoilers please!

Joanna: I definitely feel as though Doerr finished the tale on a satisfying note; most of the loose ends were tied, and we got a little insight into how our characters moved on from the war. The only thing I’d say is that I felt as though Doerr writes in a way that still leaves questions unanswered, so we never really know what happens to the Sea of Flames, and how the characters move on from the final scenes.

Maria: The ending was no surprise. It just seemed to happen, with no satisfying conclusion.

Katherine: Yes, I do enjoy a jump to the future to tie up any loose ends and give satisfaction.

Izzy: Mmm it kind of ended rather suddenly. However, the story was concluded, and it did feel like it was finished, so there weren’t any loose ends left untied which can sometimes be annoying. 

What Would You Rate This Book?

Joanna: 4/10

Maria: 4/10

Katherine: 3/10

Izzy: 5/10

Average rating: 4/10

The All the Light we Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, book with a cat in the background

Our Overall Thoughts on All the Light we Cannot See

Joanna: Although I love a good WW2 book, this was probably my least favourite of all the war stories I’ve read (and that’s a fair few). Although I was rooting for the characters, I think it was predominantly the stop and start nature of the writing which let it down for me. It made it difficult for me to fully immerse myself in it, so I didn’t feel as though I was whisked away into the story, and fully invested in the tale.

Maria: Overall I enjoyed this book, but I found it to be quite a slow read. I was left feeling unsatisfied with the outcome, and in the end wanted much more for the  likeable characters.

Katherine: Ultimately, this book wasn’t really my cup of tea. It’s definitely disappointing, as I do love a WW2 story, and really wanted to enjoy it as the characters were very likeable. However, it ended up not being what I’d hoped, so wouldn’t read it again.

Izzy: Initially I struggled to get into the book, and it took a while for me to feel invested in the characters and the story. Sometimes the syntax used was strange, and this made it slower to read (as someone who doesn’t read much). However, I did enjoy the style of writing, as it did challenge me a bit more than other books I’ve read recently. Furthermore, as the book was mainly written from the perspective of children, there were times as the reader where I’d have to made deductions for myself. This challenged me to think deeper into things, which I enjoyed doing. I think I would recommend this book, but only if the person I was recommending it to had read most of the other books I’ve read (not that many). It wasn’t the best book I’ve read, but it wasn’t bad.

Did you enjoy hearing four different perspectives on this tale? Perhaps you have a perspective of your own that you want to share. Be sure to leave your thoughts in the comments down below, and join us for our next read – The Wasp Factory, by Iain Banks. See you in the next one!

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