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Book Clubbing

Introduction

All the Light We Cannot See 
by Anthony Doerr

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Rights acquired by 20th Century Fox in 2015.

Author

Anthony Doerr

© Isabelle Selby

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About the Book

A poignant novel about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II. Marie Laure lives with her father in Paris within walking distance of the Museum of Natural History where he works as the master of the locks. When Marie is six, she goes blind, and her father builds her a model of their neighborhood with every house and every manhole.  She memorizes the model with her fingers so she can navigate the real streets with her feet and cane. When the Germans occupy Paris, she and her father flee to Saint-Malo on the Brittany coast to live with her agoraphobic great uncle. In another world in Germany, an orphan boy, Werner, grows up with his younger sister, Jutta. They are both enchanted by a crude radio that Werner finds. He becomes a master at building and fixing radios, a talent that wins him a place at an elite and brutal military academy. Ultimately, he becomes a highly specialized tracker of the Resistance. Werner travels through the heart of Hitler Youth to the far-flung outskirts of Russia, and finally into Saint-Malo, where his path converges with Marie-Laure.

About the Author

Anthony Doerr is an American author of novels and short stories. He gained widespread recognition for his 2014 novel All the Light We Cannot See, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Doerr graduated from nearby University School in 1991. He then majored in history at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, where he graduated in 1995 and earned an MFA from Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio.

His first published book was a collection of short stories called The Shell Collector (2002), which won New York Public Library’s Young Lion’s Fiction Award in 2003. He wrote another book of short stories called Memory Wall (2010), which won the Ohioana Book Award and The Story Prize in 2011.  His first novel, About Grace, was released in 2004 and he wrote a memoir, Four Seasons in Rome, which was published in 2007. In 2010, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship.  

Besides winning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, All the Light We Cannot See was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction and a New York Times bestseller.

Doerr also writes a column on science books for the Boston Globe and is a contributor to The Morning News, an online magazine. From 2007-2010, he was the writer-in-residence for the state of Idaho, where he lives with his wife and twin sons.

Discussion Questions

  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. 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?