Another top-ranked contender in this year’s Morning News Tournament of Books, Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See seemed like a sure thing for me to like. It made most of last year’s Best-Of lists, was a National Book Award finalist as well as one of the New York Times 10 Best Books. It was historical fiction set in WWII, like one of my favorite books in recent years, the similarly lauded Life after Life by Kate Atkinson.

And yet. And yet. Not only did I not connect with this book, as I read more of it, I became increasingly annoyed and exasperated. It is told mostly from the alternating perspectives of Marie-Laure, a blind girl who leaves war-town Paris for the walled city of Saint-Malo, where her uncle lives, and Werner, a scrawny but brilliant German orphan whose savant-like facility with radios earns him a spot in a Nazi Youth prep school where he witnesses terrible brutality. Because, Nazis.

Scattered among the Marie and Werner chapters are some from other perspectives, including from the big bad Nazi guy who becomes obsessed with tracking down a legendary, allegedly curses diamond that Marie’s father (a museum security/lock expert) had been entrusted with.

The segments are short, so it was not a difficult book to read. Hindering me, though, we some sentences that completely threw me out of the narrative. Most critics and readers praise Doerr’s lovely prose, but sometimes for me I stumbled over what felt like “darlings”: overly crafted sentences that drew my attention to the sentence, and away from the story. For instance, after a bombing, blind Marie Laure has to make her way downstairs to the kitchen by herself:

A cookbook lies facedown in her path like a shotgunned bird. (101)

The simile felt clumsy–I had to think about it, and decided I didn’t care for it, then wondered why such a visual simile was in this section about the blind girl who couldn’t even see the book anyway, much less that it looked like a shotgunned bird. And, now that I’m thinking about it, no it didn’t, because the book would have been intact, where a shotgunned bird (as opposed to a wounded, dead, or stunned bird) would have been torn apart.

I maintain that I hate that simile even more, now.


Through three arched windows, dawn sends a sheaf of hallowed golden rays. (138)

Why hallowed? The adjective stopped me in my forward progress, wondering why it was there. I found no reason, other than it might sound pretty.

As I trudged on, I was struck by what I saw as the books complete lack of humor. The characters did love one another but they never joked, they never made humorous observations. Everyone was a serious character: the blind girl, the orphaned boy genius recruited into Nazi Youth even though he’s not evil, the evil Nazi obsessed with some object who IS evil. I didn’t connect with these characters, or find them compelling. They bored me, even as I surmised what the outcome would be for each of them.

I wondered whether to continue. As with The Paying Guests, I was not enjoying it. But did I want to finish it anyway, to see if it got better, or so I would have my own full-formed opinion of why I didn’t like it, when so many others have?

Reader, I put it down. Skipped ahead to the ending, which proved out the suspicions I’d had prior to the halfway mark–who lives, who dies, who succeeds, who fails, and what happens to the diamond.

At the Tournament of Books, All the Light We Cannot See won its first match, and is up against the similarly underwheming-to-me Paying Guests, and whichever wins will go up against David Mitchell’s Bone Clocks (which I didn’t love either.) or Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings. I’m tentatively rooting for the latter, because I haven’t yet read it, I already bought it, and it’s by a non-white author who happens to live in my city. He recently wrote about how he got to Minneapolis from Jamaica for The New York Times.

5 Responses to “ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE by Anthony Doerr”

  1. carolyn Says:

    I am reading the Marlon James and think I’ll probably put it down unfinished. It feels like a lot of work to read (many voices, in different almost dialects) with not that much payoff in terms of entertaining plot or something like that.

  2. carolyn Says:

    (but unlike you, I did really love Bone Clocks.)

  3. girldetective Says:

    I loved the first 4 chapters of the Bone Clocks. Book 5 was too long, too much telling, and just silly; it bored me. Book 6 was too end heavy with its new world and new characters. I loved it, but not as part of the whole.

  4. Gert Loveday Says:

    Oh, I so disagree with you. I loved Doerr’s “Memory Wall” and I liked this almost as much. I thought the way he created the universe of the senses in Marie-Laure, parallelled by the unseen world of radiowaves for Werner, was masterly. But if you were being pulled up short and irritated by particular sentences or images, it sounds as if the book didnlt succeed for you from the beginning, i.e. didn’t draw you into that deeper level of absorption where you pass over such things. It did me, and I’m a pretty crabby reader!

  5. girldetective Says:

    Gert, I feel like such a crab for not liking All the Light, and you’re right–the book would have needed to enfold me so I could get over some of the weird writing bits (that I didn’t notice, for instance, in the first four books of Bone Clocks, but I was still utterly enthralled with it, then fell out of love with the book and the writing in book 5, so much that I couldn’t muster much love for 6). Something about the blind girl and the brilliant orphan put me off rather than drew me in.