“Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.”
All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr follows a blind French girl named Marie-Laure LeBlanc and a German boy named Werner Pfenning during World War II. Through alternating points of view between Marie and Werner and an unchronological timeline that jumps between past and present, we follow as Marie flees her home to stay with her Uncle Etienne in Saint-Malo while Werner is recruited for the war by the Nazis. The two experience the war through two very different points of view until eventually, their lives intersect in Saint-Malo.
In 1934, six-year-old Marie-Laure LeBlanc lives with her father Daniel in Paris. There, her father works in the National Museum of Natural History as a locksmith. Marie goes blind, prompting her father to construct a miniature replica of the city for her. Using the model he built, he encourages and teaches Marie to adapt and learn the city so that she may be able to navigate it. Her father also crafts her puzzle boxes for each of her birthdays for her to solve which leads her to a small gift once solved and opened.
At the museum where her father works, Marie learns of a rare jewel called the “Sea of Flames” where legend claims the jewel allows anyone who holds it immortality, but in return, kills anyone the person in possession of it loves. Marie worries about the jewel, but her father tells her it is just a myth.
The same year, an eight-year-old German orphan named Werner Pfenning is living in a Children’s Home with his sister Jutta. One day, Werner discovers a radio. Intrigued by it, he tinkers with it until he and his sister manage to get it to work and hear a broadcast. Werner eventually becomes obsessed with the broadcast of a French scientist. Frau Elena, a Frenchwoman who runs the orphanage, encourages Werner to pursue his interest in sciences as she sees great promise in him. Werner continues to rebuild and repair electronics, gaining a reputation.
One day, a German officer visits the orphanage and takes Werner to repair a radio. Impressed, the radio’s owner, a high-ranking Nazi official, recommends Werner to a Nazi school. Werner passes his exams and is accepted to the school, but his sister Jutta is not happy and their relationship suffers as a result. Werner hopes that the school will be a better future for him, as his only other option is the mines near the orphanage.
In 1940, Marie is now twelve-years-old. The threat of the Germans invading Paris looms, and her father has them leave the city. Before leaving, her father is given the “Sea of Flames” to hide while three others are given replicas. They travel to Saint-Malo to live with his Uncle Etienne and his housekeeper Madame Manec. Her father explains that Etienne changed during the war and is now considered “crazy”. However, Marie bonds with Uncle Etienne, specifically over science and his radios. Her father creates another model, this one of Saint-Malo, so that Marie can once again learn to navigate their new home. Daniel hides the jewel he has in the small model he built of Uncle Etienne’s home. Marie learns that her grandfather made broadcasts focused on science, the very same ones we discover that Werner and Jutta used to listen to. He used a secret radio in the attic of the house. Later it’s revealed that Etienne was playing the broadcasts to honor his brother’s memory.
One day, Marie’s father Daniel informs her that he must return to Paris, but that he will be back in ten days. However, after months have passed, her father does not return. Marie spends time with Madame Manec who takes her to the beach and works with friends in a secret resistance against the Nazis. Unfortunately, Madame Manec gets sick and passes away. A man that she and Madame Manec had befriended gives Marie a key to a secret grotto near the ocean. Marie and Etienne, inspired by her actions, begin to do what they can to fight the Germans. Marie gets bread from a baker that contains secret messages that Etienne broadcasts over the radio.
In Germany, fourteen-year-old Werner now studies at the Institute. There, he begins to train as a Nazi and study privately with a professor in physics. He befriends a boy named Fredrick, who comes from wealth. During his time there, Werner witnesses harsh brutality, including Fredrick being beaten severely which results in damage to his brain. At age sixteen, Werner disappoints his professor and wants to leave the institute. As a result, the professor falsifies Werner’s age and makes it so that he is old enough to be eligible to fight in the war. Werner is then sent into military service where he is tasked with using radios to locate enemy broadcasts. He works with a soldier named Volkheimer.
In the following years during the early 1940s, a Nazi officer named von Rumpel begins hunting for the infamous “Sea of Flames” jewel after learning of its supposed power and after searching for the other replicas, tracks it to Saint-Malo. At the same time, Werner is sent to Saint-Malo to locate an enemy broadcast, the very one Marie and Etienne are behind. When Werner discovers the broadcast belongs to the very same man whom he loved to listen to at the orphanage, he keeps his discovery a secret.
In 1944, the Allies begin bombing Saint-Malo. Etienne is arrested and sent to jail, leaving Marie alone. When the Americans drop papers across the city warning people to evacuate, Marie cannot read them and stays behind. When the city is bombed, Werner, having been stationed at the Hotel of Bees, becomes trapped in the cellar. He continues to listen to Marie’s broadcasts over the radio. Marie discovers that her father hid the “Sea of Flames” jewel in the model of Etienne’s home. Elsewhere, von Rumpel heads to Etienne’s house to get the jewel. When he arrives, Marie takes the radio and jewel and hides in the attic.
Having heard Marie broadcast that a man is at her home trying to kill her, Werner and Volkheimer manage to get out of the cellar and he goes to Etienne’s house. When he arrives, von Rumpel tries to kill Werner believing that he is also there to steal the famous jewel, but Werner kills him. He calls out to Marie, and she decides to trust him and leaves her hiding spot. Werner realizes Marie is blind and helps her get to safety. She thanks him by hiding the jewel in the secret grotto by the ocean and gives Werner the model of Etienne’s house with the key inside.
Marie is reunited with Etienne and the two go and live together in Paris. After Etienne dies, Marie grows up to become a scientist. Werner, after having been arrested and turned over to the Americans, is sent to a prison. There, he falls ill and while feverish, accidentally stumbles outside and steps on a landmine that kills him.
During the 1970s, Volkheimer is given some of Werner’s belongings which he delivers to Wener’s sister Jutta, who is now married with a son named Max. Volkheimer gives her the small model house Werner had that still holds the key to the secret grotto. Jutta learns about Marie and tracks her down, returning the replica house to her. We learn that Marie is still a scientist now with a daughter. Etienne, before he had died, managed to hire an investigator to find out what happened to Marie’s father Daniel. It turns out Daniel never made it back, he was arrested and died while in prison. The “Sea of Flames” jewel was never recovered from the grotto and is believed to have washed away into the ocean.
In 2014, Marie is now an old woman who lived a full life with a successful career. She is in Paris with her grandson, where she reminisces about all the people in her life, including Madame Manec, Etienne, and her father.
Through beautiful writing, descriptions, and heart-warming characters, Anthony Doerr crafts a wonderful historical fiction book that is deserving of its many accolades. Through the harrowing journeys that Marie and Werner experience, readers will indeed find light in the darkness of events that take place throughout the story.
Average Ratings: 4.3 (Goodreads), 4.5 (Amazon), 4.4 (B&N)
- Winner of the Pulitzer Prize
- National Book Award Finalist
- New York Times Bestseller
- Goodreads Choice Winner – Winner Best Historical Fiction 2018
Popularity: Over 800,000 five-star reviews on Goodreads, has sold over 15 million copies, was on the New York Times Best Seller list for over 200 weeks, and won numerous awards including the Pulitzer Prize.
Genre: Historical Fiction
Themes: History, War, World War II
Trigger Warnings: Mentions of Antisemitism and Nazism, Murder, Death, Rape, Torture, and War Themes. Please always search for trigger and content warnings before reading!
Book Recommendations: The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, The Alice Network by Kate Quinn, A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, and The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris.
All the Light We Cannot See has recently been adapted into a limited series on Netflix.