All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Another day, another review. My husband and I joined a book club through meetup.com. This international site helps you meet people with similar interests. We’ve been slacking on reading,  so we thought a book club would get us back into the groove.

We had our first meeting in December where we introduced ourselves and decided on a book. I, of course, am a dork and brought a two-page list of the books I wanted to read and their descriptions. One of the books on my list, and the chosen one, was All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr—the 2015 Pulitzer Prize.


Here’s a short synopsis of the book. It’s about a blind French girl and a German boy, both growing up during World War II, and then their paths cross. This meeting changes them forever. For more information about the book, head on over to Amazon.

Anthony Doerr’s descriptions are like no others. He molds landscapes, wars with words until my heart thumped from the vision he created for me. They’re unique. I’d like to share a few of the descriptions that I enjoyed.

  • Page 4
  • Page 70
  • Page 95
  • Page 218
  • Page 260
  • Page 298
“To the bombardiers, the walled city on its granite headland, drawing ever closer, looks like an unholy tooth, something black and dangerous, a final abscess to be lanced away.”
“And yet everything radiates tension, as if the city has been built upon the skin of a balloon and someone is inflating it.”
“The appetite for oxygen is such that objects heavier than housecats are dragged into the flames.”
“Drops fall like seeds from the tip of her umbrella.”
“His breath smells like crushed insects.”
“As though a weary tide stirs stones in the old woman’s lungs.”

The way he guides the reader’s vision of a place, destruction, appearance, made me wish I had a pinky size of his talent. I’m a reader who loves and underlines phrases and sentences that stand out. That I haven’t read before. Strands of words, like a string of pearls, fitted together to catapult me into another world. Who let me become friends or enemies with the characters. Some writers know how to bring me into their worlds where I get to exercise all senses and emotions.

Now I will delve into the novel with my review. There will be spoilers, so if you plan on reading this book, don’t read this review. I do want to mention that I’m not a fan of some of the classics. A reader needs patience to trudge through pages of description that tend to become repetitive. I’ve tried The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas and Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. Maybe I’m just not that intelligent to appreciate and distinguish fine prose. Whatever the reason, this may give you an idea as to whether or not you want to continue reading.

That said I feel like Doerr’s novel falls into a classics category—full of description. I really wanted to love this book. It’s safe to say I wasn’t the audience he had in mind when writing it, and I’m in the minority of disliking it. As much as I adore his descriptions, I equally dislike his writing style. It’s as if he sacrificed characters for beautiful prose. The amount of descriptions, tangents, lists, and short chapters swallow up the characters. If I can’t connect with them, there’s no way I’m going to like the book. This book is roughly 530 pages long. It really should have been half its length.

Point of View

First, the book is told in third person omniscient, meaning the narrator knows all the thoughts and feelings of the characters. The narrator isn’t a character nor does the narration come from a character’s perspective. It’s some unknown person telling me all about the thoughts and feelings of the personas. I can’t recall reading a book with this POV, but I don’t like it. Eleven percent into the book, my frustration got the best of me. The POV and descriptions muddled my experience. There were passages where I couldn’t figure out if it was the character’s thoughts or feelings or the narrator’s.

  • Page 153
  • Page 109
  • Page 280
“Block out giant Frank Volkheimer with his mammoth boots and cinder-block jaw. Block out the little aristocratic professor pacing in front of the hearth and the late hour and the dogs and the shelves brimming with interesting things. There is only this.”

When reading this passage, it sounded as if Werner was talking to himself. But he couldn’t be since it’s in third person.

“Behind him, over Evreux, a wall of clouds ignites once, twice. Lightning?”

The author does this often in the book. He’ll rattle off things and then asks a question. Who is the narrator asking? The reader?

“The first policeman snaps flesh off his apple with his teeth. Are they looking at her?”

Uh, she’s blind. The narrator is telling me what the police are doing, and then jumps into Marie-Laure’s head. At first, I thought Marie-Laure was describing the policeman and then wondering if they were looking at her. This wouldn’t work either, because if she doesn’t know if they’re looking at her, she wouldn’t know what the policeman is doing.

Prose

There were images in the book where I couldn’t picture it. Maybe I’m dense, but it just didn’t sound right. This might seem nit-picky, however Doerr is praised for his prose—prose that took ten-years to write. I’ll share a few examples with you.

  • Page 76
  • Page 88
  • Page 121
  • Page 235
“…and she thinks she can smell threads of dust cascading from the ceiling.”

Two issues with this description, 1) how does one smell threads of dust? And 2) how does a girl who goes blind at the age of six ‘think’ she smells threads of dust?

“In the gloaming to the east, he can make out a gray line of traffic herded between the edges of the road.”

Gloaming? I had to look that up, which means twilight, dusk. Okay, it’s not his fault my vocabulary is limited, but it made me wonder if gloam has more power than twilight, and I concluded, “Nein”. Gloam is something I can see in a poem. Why not just say, “The twilight in the east revealed a gray line of traffic herded between the edges of the road.”?

“The eggs taste like clouds. Like spun gold.”

Huh? This is such a weird comparison. How do clouds taste, and if I’ve ever tasted them, they sure as heck wouldn’t taste like eggs. Or spun gold, which I would never eat unless someone wanted to steal it from me.

“His face has the color and polish of tropical wood.”

How does a face look like tropical wood?

Lists

Doerr’s writing also consists of lists throughout the book. I call the separate words or phrases placed one after the other lists. He’s a natural born list maker, which drove me nuts and came off as page fillers.

  • Page 86
  • Page 126
  • Page 230
  • Page 311
“Light, electricity, ether. Space, time, mass. Heinrich Hertz’s Principles of Mechanics. Heissmeyers famous schools. Code breaking, rocket propulsion, all the latest.”
“Marie-Laure wakes to church bells: two three four five.” He does this too much in the book that it lost its flair. “Wind: immediate, bright, sweet, briny, luminous.” Did he bet someone as to how many adjectives he could connect with wind?
Along with the lists, Doerr also counts. “She wakes to Madame Manec’s blocky pumps climbing to the third floor the fourth the fifth.” No punctuation, and continues the counting. “Her heart beats two four six eight.” Counting doesn’t build intrigue, so why have it?
“Static static static static static. In his functioning ear, in the radio, in the air.” GAH!!!

Tangents

Then there are tangents. Many times the narrator tells us the characters are recalling memories when Doerr should have put more time into the moment. He’ll start a chapter about a character, the character starts thinking about the past, and then the chapter ends.

Characters

Doerr spent plenty of time giving me a visualization of the places, yet he fell short of showing me the characters. Also, the abundance of small chapters create long gaps between characters. For instance, Chapter 79 talks about Von Rumple’s diagnosis, and if I’m not mistaken, the next mention of him is Chapter 92.

To top it off, in regards to Marie-Laure, the narrator tells me “she thinks” or “she feels” instead of showing me, and sometimes it being impossible. When talking about Marie-Laure, the author should have applied the senses using his beautiful prose. She’s blind so use her touch, smell, taste to understand where she is or how she came to an assumption. Instead, Doerr uses the narrator. Below are a few I’ve chosen:

  • Page 158
  • Page 181
  • Page 291
  • Page 291
  • Page 333
“At the top, she stands; she has the sense of a long slope-walled space pressed beneath the gable of the roof.”

How does she “sense” this without touch? The author describes so many things indepth and then just states how she senses it. She has needed her father to make a replica of the town, which she memorized over the years, yet she can “sense” this area.

“…and she can feel fear pumping off him, virulent, toxic; it reminds her of fumes billowing off the vats of formalin in the Department of Zoology.”

How does fear pump off you? And did I miss something? Has she been to the Department of Zoology? Why not use her sense of smell. “She can smell the sweat accumulating on his skin, toxic, bitter; it reminded her of the sharp taste of Madame Manec’s peaches when they turned bad.” 

“…but Marie-Laure is certain that when they stopped to greet a woman on the way here, Madame dropped off one envelope and picked up another.”

The girl is blind. Did she hear the rustling of paper? A handshake? “Marie-Laure heard the rustling of paper when they stopped to greet a woman on the way here, a slight snigger escaped their lips before they moved on.”

“Insects drone: wasps, hoverlies, a passing dragonfly—Etienne has taught Marie-Laure to distinguish each by its sound.”

Etienne hasn’t been out of the house in about twenty-years and Marie only goes to certain places. How is it that he taught her how to distinguish between these sounds.

“Graceful. Lean. Coordinated as she whirls, thought how she knows what dancing is, he could never guess.” Exactly what I was thinking.

These additional descriptions are issues I had with other characters.

“Your problem, Werner,” says Frederick, “is that you still believe you own your life.” This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Werner never acted as if he owned his life. Frederick did. Frederick continued to be himself. He stood up and refused to pour cold water on a prisoner. The women in town who transferred information to one another had more guts than Werner.

In the chapter, Diagnosis, the author throws in a little bit about the medical exam while the rest of the chapter is about finding jewels. Doerr has the characters reflect on other things instead of describing the moment.

There’s a passage where Werner sneaks away to see Frederick in the infirmary. He’s talking to a nurse, and then out of the blue comes, “Each time he blinks, he sees the men of his childhood, laid-off miners drifting through back alleys, men with hooks for fingers and vacuums for eyes; he sees Bastian standing over a smoking river, snow falling all around him.” Again, the author takes us into a reflection without really describing the moment. I also couldn’t make the connection between the conversation and his thoughts of the past.

Doerr also refers to the characters in strange ways, such as Marie-Laure’s father. At times, he’s referred to as her papa, and other times, the locksmith. The author also switches from Etienne to her great-uncle.

The past thoughts with the short chapters and flip-flopping from one character to another, prevented me from having an emotional connection. I didn’t care about them except for Frederick. When Werner died, I didn’t feel sorry for him or cry, which shocked me since I cry just watching a Hallmark movie.

Due to all of these issues, I gave this book a 2 star rating. While reading it, I thought of comparable books I would recommend instead of this one, such as The Book Thief by Markus Zusak and The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. These authors have the talent to paint beautiful landscapes with their words, but also mold and grow characters I love and hate.

Reviews and Classics,
Baer Necessities

 

14 thoughts on “All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr”

  1. I can’t wait to read this book for myself. I have had it on my TBR for a while and I just know I am gonna love it. It sounds like a true piece of literature and that’s what I have been craving ever since I read The Goldfinch and greatly enjoyed that one. The writing sounds absolutely beautiful <3

  2. I downloaded this book last spring, but never started to read it. I have since gone to one book club meeting what that particular group and joked that it only took me a year to make it to my first meeting after joining, but last year as a crazy year, so I try to be easy on myself when it comes to having read fewer books not to mention making it to book club meetings. I did skip the second part of this post to avoid spoilers, so thank you for setting it up that way. On a sidenote, Doerr lives in Boise and teaches writing at BSU. He’s the states first Pulitzer winner. Go Idaho! Haha.

    1. Jeri, I have many books on my kindle that I haven’t started yet. I’m sure this year will be better for you. I’m definitely going easy on myself and set my Goodreads reading challenge to 12 books this year. I hope I at least do that.

      I’m glad you skipped the review since you’re going to read it. I did see that Doerr lives in Boise. Go Potatoes! LOL! Just kidding.

      P.S. I apologize for the crazy font and menu bar mess up. I ran my theme update and it screwed up my site. Gotta try and fix it now.

  3. I love your review, probably more than I’d ever love the book. I’ll admit I’m not a huge fan of those dry classics that pour pages of descriptions into one scene. Also, that list making thing would drive me mad, too. I hate when I’m reading something and I notice a trait/quirk the author does a ton – and then each time I notice it subsequently, it detracts from the story, because all I can think of is, “Ugh, again?”

    1. ABFTS, That’s exactly what happened to me. I noticed things I disliked about his writing style and every time I came across it, it hit me like a speed bump. My eyes rolled and I sighed way too much.

  4. Denise – I received an email from you in my comcast account that doesn’t look right. Did you get hacked?

    1. Robin, Not that I’m aware of. I’ve received some hacked emails from family, but I never opened or clicked on the links. If there isn’t any personal text from me, please don’t open it. I apologize for the inconvenience and I’ll check my accounts.

  5. Good review – apparently it is ‘literary’ but of the kind I don’t like: language and narrator are allowed to interrupt story and characters.

    Thanks to you review, I won’t read this (or The Goldfinch). I love the classics (probably skipped some descriptions if they got too long when I was a child), but story is the reason I read.

    I write – just published my first novel – and like to say I use ‘literary quality’ in my prose, but it’s not allowed to interfere with telling a story. Mainstream, and the intent is to appeal to a lot of people, something at which I seem to be succeeding (on a small scale – I’m so new). I have readers tell me they love it who range from a 20 year old girl to an 80 year old man.

    Omniscient was the style often used in the past, and you’re right, it adds a narrator to everything. Done well, you might not notice it. Done poorly, the clunkiness of someone telling you things and being able to see inside everyone’s head but only choosing some of them, and omniscient drives me crazy. But writing close third with multiple characters (3) – which is what I do – is HARD: you have to become that character to write from inside their skull, and switching to the next character is work.

    So? Writing shouldn’t be easy – but writers should make it an easy way for readers to get the story. Literary doesn’t do that – it’s aimed at elite readers who get all the cute little literary allusions and references and vocabulary.

    1. Alicia, Thanks to you, I won’t read The Goldfinch. I do love a great story, but I also need my characters. They shouldn’t drown in purple prose.

      Congratulations on your first published book. That’s great! I think it’s wonderful that your literary quality appeals to many. You have a wide range audience.

      Third person omniscient is a difficult POV to write. It can come off as head hopping. Writing is definitely not easy, so when I hear someone likes my writing; it makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. I actually can deal with someone disliking my story. Reading is subjective. My writing fear is for someone to tell me my writing is awful.

      I don’t understand why literary should be set apart from other writing. Character and plot development is required in all books, and when a writer fails at it for “literary purposes”, then I’m definitely not wasting my time with such books. Thanks for stopping by.

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