***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***
One-sentence summary: this isn't just another WWII novel; this is a novel about people and relationships--about what it takes to be a moral human being, about choices (good ones, bad ones, and lack of action), about hands being tied, and how interconnected we all are.
What happens. All the Light We Cannot See is like a double bildungsroman. It follows little Marie-Laure LeBlanc in France, and little Werner Pfennig in Germany from before the war reaches France in the 1930s to the present (2014). They meet in person for only a day in the novel, but from the earliest pages we know that they're interconnected through a web that Mr. Doerr weaves with the grace that only Charlotte has mastered before him. As Madame Manec comments prophetically, "My God, there are none so distant that fate cannot bring them together." (In a small example of how well researched this book is, Doerr slips this expression to us without any fanfare or showing off. It's likely that the French version Mme. Manec is quoting is Il n'y a que les montagnes qui ne se rencontrent jamais, which translates literally to "Only mountains never meet each other." Attention to this sort of detail explains how it took Mr. Doerr a decade to write the book.)
As a six-year old, Marie-Laure goes blind from bilateral cataracts. Her father, who lost his wife when she gave birth to Marie, is a locksmith at the Natural History Museum in Paris. During the day he keeps the museum's keys, fashions its locks and cases for the collection, and makes repairs. Marie-Laure entertains herself in the museum and learns at the hands of kind botanists and scientists who populate the research backrooms. She has a particular interest in mollusks, which she can identify and classify by touch. In the evening, her Papa creates an intricate model of their neighborhood in Paris, coaxing Marie to learn to navigate the city by memorizing this 3-D "map." For her birthday each year he makes a unique puzzle box with a tiny gift or chocolate inside, and gives her a braille novel--once, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, which ties in nicely, if somewhat heavy-handedly, with themes of the ocean and sea creatures.
Meanwhile in Germany, Werner Pfennig and his sister, Jutte, are orphans, cared for by a kind Alsatian house mistress who alternately speaks French and German to them. Werner is mechanically gifted and interested in math and engineering, but when he turns fifteen, he is slated to work in the the same coal mine that killed his father. Jutte is a bright girl who sees through the Nazi propaganda even in its earliest days, when the SS members are just a group of brown-shirted thugs. Werner repairs a radio that he and Jutte have found, and they listen to broadcasts from all over Europe. When they're supposed to be sleeping, they occasionally find the broadcasts of a French "professor" whose wonder at science speaks directly to Werner's heart:
"Open your eyes," the professor said, "and see what you can before they close forever."
When the Germans are on the cusp of invading Paris, Marie-Laure and her father flee--her father has been entrusted with the most precious gem the Museum owns (or an identical copy of said gem, he doesn't know which). It's a diamond--the "Sea of Flames"--which purportedly grants eternal life (and incidentally a miserable curse) to its owner. The curse, to me, is just the hand we are all dealt in life: when you live long and love well, you inevitably experience the pain of losing those around you. Marie-Laure and her Papa end up on the doorstep of Marie's agoraphobic great uncle, Etienne, in a town called Saint-Malo: a gorgeous, walled port city in Brittany, which feels to Marie like it's the very edge of France. She can smell the sea, and she longs to go there to collect her first sea snail, but her father and Etienne won't allow it. Etienne turns out to be handy with a radio, and his dead brother, Marie's grandfather, enjoyed broadcasting science shows to children...
Marie-Laure's father is turned in to the occupying forces by a Nazi-colluding neighbor, who spies on him as he measures and sketches streets and buildings to create the 3-D model of Saint-Malo for Marie. From his labor camp, after only a few exaggeratedly positive letters to Marie, Papa is essentially "disappeared." Marie discovers that he has left the diamond inside the tiny version of her uncle's home in the 3-D map, locked inside of it like one of his tiny wooden puzzles. Madame Manec, the woman who cares for Marie's uncle, breaks the rules and takes Marie to the ocean. She also breaks bigger rules and helps the local resistance, with brave Marie acting as the courier.
Werner has been plucked out of coal-mining obscurity because of his talent with radios, and is accepted into an elite Nazi school that will groom him to be a special operations officer. As part of their routine training, the cadets are forced to do unspeakable things--things that his best friend, Frederick, resists (for which he is nearly beaten to death until he has brain damage). It's a blow to Werner--one that he never seems to recover from--knowing that he was unable to act against what he knew was wrong. It is also, however, what leads him on a selfless quest to save the girl who is trapped in her attic, broadcasting from her radio, and hunted by a Nazi officer in the bedroom below her.
There is a German Sergeant-major, von Rumpel, on the hunt for the Sea of Flames (initially for the Fuhrer's glorious museum, and then because of his own desperate desire to cure his terminal cancer), and a thrilling section when von Rumpel is in the house for days while Marie hides in the attic with only two cans of food and nothing to drink.
There is a ruthless, obedient, but also oddly bighearted staff sergeant, Frank Volkheimer--practically a child himself--who is somehow able to viciously kill people and also have intensely warm feelings and respect and admiration for the pale, gentle radio operator (Werner) he works with and protects.
This book is never one thing: for a moment I thought it was the classiest Raiders of the Lost Arc ever: the Nazis seek a jewel that the Museum of Natural History owns, the Sergeant-major metaphorically melts of the physical and moral cancer inside of him. For a moment you feel that Marie-Laure is Anne Frank, hiding in the attic, but with a radio transmitter at her disposal. For a very long stretch, it's a love story between a father and daughter:
There is pride, too, though. Pride that he has done it alone, that his daughter is so curious, so resilient. There is the humility of being a father to someone so powerful. As if he were only a narrow conduit for another, greater thing. That's how it feels right now, he thinks, kneeling beside her, rinsing her hair. As though his love for his daughter will outstrip the limits of his body. The walls could fall away, even the whole city, and the brightness of that feeling would not wane.
But this book is much more than a single thing. It's an examination of hope and desolation, strength and frailty, of destiny and self-determination, and the kitchen sink to boot.
The theme of light and vision abounds. The French professor has a radio segment that resonates with Werner and Jutte in which he discusses how the brain--encased in absolute darkness--can see light. Even Marie-Laure, who is blind, understands the power of light for human beings:
This, she realizes, is the basis of all fear. That a light you are powerless to stop will turn on you and usher a bullet to its mark.
Things I loved:
--The way Marie "sees" sounds and smells as colors in her head.
--The way living your life till its natural end, rather than being murdered, sometimes results in mundanity (for instance, Jutte ends up teaching math in a high school), but is still the right of all human beings.
--The way the war gutted everyone who lived through it, and only the next generation is unwounded, and only through ignorance.
--The way Werner and Marie-Laure are "destined" to meet, but only because their story is told after the fact, and we can trace all the threads that brought them together.
--The way, when Madame Manec was feverish and sick, she hallucinated that she was responsible for the world, down to the ants crawling on the ground. So powerful.
Things I didn't love as much:
--Sometimes Mr. Doerr's language flows beautifully, but sometimes he's trying too hard to be beautiful. He needs to let himself just tell the story, which is artful enough in its construction, and worry less about impressing us on a prose level.
--I worried, which distracted me, about why Marie-Laure never had cataract surgery after the war, when the procedure became common because of artificial lenses. I actually had to call my ophthalmologist to ask her. (Answer: with congenital cataracts in children, if the surgery is performed after the age of ten it does not impart much benefit.) Could there have been a way to tell the reader that it was not possible?
--I had trouble visualizing the attic. At times Marie-Laure seemed to be sitting on beams. But Etienne's radio equipment was on a desk? You might think the poor description is because Marie can't see it (a poetic reason, to be sure), but she "sees" very well with her hands and would know every nook and cranny of it.
In sum: a truly beautiful work, haunting in the way it doesn't flinch from showing how unrecoverable war is, for both the dead and the survivors, and how we're so interconnected that--politics aside--no one unequivocally "wins" in the end.