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Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. When Marie-Laure is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris, and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great-uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.
In a mining town in Germany, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments, a talent that wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then a special assignment to track the resistance. More and more aware of the human cost of his intelligence, Werner travels through the heart of the war and, finally, into Saint-Malo, where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge.
1. The book opens with two epigraphs. How do these quotes set the scene for the rest of the book? Discuss how the radio plays a major part in the story and the time period. How do you think the impact of the radio back then compares with the impact of the Internet on today's society?
2. The narration moves back and forth both in time and between different characters. How did this affect your reading experience? How do you think the experience would have been different if the story had been told entirely in chronological order?
3. Whose story did you enjoy the most? Was there any character you wanted more insight into?
4. When Werner and Jutta first hear the Frenchman on the radio, he concludes his broadcast by saying "Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever" (pages 48–49), and Werner recalls these words throughout the book (pages 86, 264, and 409). How do you think this phrase relates to the overall message of the story? How does it relate to Madame Manec's question: "Don't you want to be alive before you die?" (page 270)?
5. On page 160, Marie-Laure realizes "This ... is the basis of his fear, all fear. That a light you are powerless to stop will turn on you and usher a bullet to its mark." How does this image constitute the most general basis of all fear? Do you agree?
6. Reread Madame Manec's boiling frog analogy on page 284. Etienne later asks Marie-Laure, "Who was supposed to be the frog? Her? Or the Germans?" (page 328) Who did you think Madame Manec meant? Could it have been someone other than herself or the Germans? What does it say about Etienne that he doesn't consider himself to be the frog?
7. On page 368, Werner thinks, "That is how things are ... with everybody in this unit, in this army, in this world, they do as they're told, they get scared, they move about with only themselves in mind. Name me someone who does not." But in fact many of the characters show great courage and selflessness throughout the story in some way, big or small. Talk about the different ways they put themselves at risk in order to do what they think is right. What do you think were some shining moments? Who did you admire most?
8. On page 390, the author writes, "To shut your eyes is to guess nothing of blindness." What did you learn or realize about blindness through Marie-Laure's perspective? Do you think her being blind gave her any advantages?
9. One of Werner's bravest moments is when he confronts von Rumpel: "All your life you wait, and then it finally comes, and are you ready?" (page 465) Have you ever had a moment like that? Were you ready? What would you say that moment is for some of the other characters?
10. Why do you think Marie-Laure gave Werner the little iron key? Why might Werner have gone back for the wooden house but left the Sea of Flames?
11. Von Rumpel seemed to believe in the power of the Sea of Flames, but was it truly a supernatural object or was it merely a gemstone at the center of coincidence? Do you think it brought any protection to Marie-Laure and/or bad luck to those she loved?
12. When Werner and Marie-Laure discuss the unknown fate of Captain Nemo at the end of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Marie-Laure suggests the open-endedness is intentional and meant to make us wonder (page 472). Are there any unanswered questions from this story that you think are meant to make us wonder?
13. The 1970s image of Jutta is one of a woman deeply guilt-ridden and self-conscious about her identity as a German. Why do you think she feels so much guilt over the crimes of others? Can you relate to this? Do you think she should feel any shame about her identity?
14. What do you think of the author's decision to flash forward at the end of the book? Did you like getting a peek into the future of some of these characters? Did anything surprise you?
15. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once wrote that "the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being." All the Light We Cannot See is filled with examples of human nature at its best and worst. Discuss the themes of good versus evil throughout the story. How do they drive each other? What do you think are the ultimate lessons that these characters and the resolution of their stories teach us?
Anthony Doerr was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. He is the author of the story collections The Shell Collector and Memory Wall, the memoir Four Seasons in Rome, and the novels About Grace and All the Light We Cannot See, which was awarded the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the 2015 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. Doerr’s writing has won four O. Henry Prizes and has been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories, The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, The Best American Essays, and The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Fiction. He has won the Barnes & Noble Discover Prize, the Rome Prize, the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, an NEA Fellowship, an Alex Award from the American Library Association, the National Magazine Award for Fiction, four Pushcart Prizes, two Pacific Northwest Book Awards, three Ohioana Book Awards, the 2010 Story Prize, which is considered the most prestigious prize in the U.S. for a collection of short stories, and the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award, which is the largest prize in the world for a single short story. In 2007, the British literary magazine Granta placed Doerr on its list of 21 Best Young American novelists.
Doerr lives in Boise, Idaho with his wife and two sons. Though he is often asked, as far as he knows he is not related to the late writer Harriet Doerr.
Q: Where were you when you found out you were nominated for the National Book Award?
A: I was at my desk, grappling with some lousy paragraph. The kids were at school and the dogs were sleeping and my phone started buzzing. It said “Unknown,” so I didn’t pick up. Then it made its little voicemail chirp, and I noticed that the caller’s area code was 212, so I got curious. The voice on the recording said, “Hello, my name is Harold Augenbraum; I’m calling from the National Book Foundation. If you can please call me back, I’m at…” I thought: If you really are a steadfast, wholehearted writer, Tony, you’ll fix this paragraph before returning his call.
I didn’t fix the paragraph.
Q: Did you just follow your instincts as to who got passed the talking stick, or did you have a master plan? Did any other voices end up on the cutting room floor?
A: Yes, lots of poor souls ended up on the floor. Did I have a master plan? Not really. Mostly I constructed and then cut lots of variations.
But when I started to worry that my book was becoming too rigidly adherent to the Marie/Werner/Marie/Werner back-and-forth structure (my editor, Nan Graham, used the adjective “ping-pong-y”) I started looking at POV in books that I admire and found that my favorite moments in those books often involved some level of disruption in point of view. A narrator’s privilege gets established and then, later in the book, it expands or frays.
That kind of stuff would probably get picked on in workshops. So whenever I found All the Light getting too schematic, too rigidly obsessed with its own symmetry, I tried to remind myself that a novel can be a more organic, digressive, human thing, full of movement and departures and tertiary voices.
Q: Books don’t exist in a vacuum. What kinds of films, music, artwork and other creative forms did you draw inspiration from while you were working on this novel?
A: So many. When you’re working lots every day, almost everything you read or hear or see outside of those hours becomes relevant to the book. That’s perhaps the best thing about being immersed in a project– the world starts to glow with pertinence.
I drew from walks around the city of Saint-Malo, and the Natural History museum in Paris, and the compositions of Debussy, but mostly I drew from books. I list several of the most prominent ones in the back of the novel, but there are dozens of others I could have included: Guy Sajer’s The Forgotten Soldier, Heimrad Bäcker’s amazing Transcript, Shirer’s Berlin Diary, Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction, Marguerite Duras’ The War, Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell books, Mercè Rodoreda’s The Time of the Doves...
Q: Upon reading one of your final drafts, your wife told you that you needed to prepare for your life to shift, that this book was going to change things. That she had the intuition to know that the decade you’d spent working on this book was going to see a huge payoff was immensely moving to me. Your twins were just born when you started All the Light We Cannot See—they’re ten now. Is there anything you’d like to add here about your family?
A: Shauna is amazing. It takes incredible patience to be in a partnership with someone who disappears behind a closed door every day, only to emerge eight hours later and start complaining that we’re out of yogurt.
When I’m working hard on a story, I’ll turn my back on her in the middle of conversations to run downstairs and scribble a bunch of illegible notes on a pad. Or I’ll shake her awake at one in the morning to ask something ridiculous like, “Do you think someone in Brittany would have had a hair dryer in 1939?”
My family? They’re everything to me. The happiest hours of my life have little to do with writing. They come when I’m wrestling with my sons in the snow, or throwing a ball