If you’re drawn to rich historical narratives and whimsical characters who take on heavy themes, your book club will find plenty of food for thought in Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2015, All The Light We Cannot See highlights the interconnected nature of all life– even lives that take place on opposite sides of a war.
Doerr weaves many questions into the overall theme of his novel. When should we protect the ones we love, and when should we call upon them to be brave? Are we in control of our own choices or just part of a grand cultural machine? What forces prevent us from seeing the truth about the world, and how can we overcome our own blindness? We’re here to help you approach these themes and others with our list of All the Light We Cannot See book club questions.
Our discussion guide for All the Light We Cannot See is formatted to help you get to the bottom of this dense novel. First, we’ve provided a synopsis of All the Light We Cannot See, in case you need a quick recap of characters and events. Next, we’ve provided 10 All the Light We Cannot See book club questions. Hopefully they trigger a few “a-ha!” moments in your discussion. Finally, we’ve curated a few quotes from book reviews to make sure you don’t miss any hot takes on this popular novel.
And if you enjoyed All the Light We Cannot See, be sure to scroll to the end of this guide for 3 readalike suggestions for this book to add to your TBR pile.
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All the Light We Cannot See Synopsis
All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr
Marie-Laure lives in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where her father works. When she 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, Werner Pfennig, an orphan, grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find that brings them news and stories from places they have never seen or imagined. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments and is enlisted to use his talent to track down the resistance. Deftly interweaving the lives of Marie-Laure and Werner, Doerr illuminates the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another.
10 All the Light We Cannot See Book Club Questions
- Werner is fascinated by the inner workings of mechanical systems like radios. However, when he hears German society referred to as a “great machine,” he is repulsed by the comparison.
How are humans like machines, and how are we unlike machines? Why might it be frightening or disgusting to imagine ourselves as machines?
- Shortly after Marie-Laure goes blind, she reflects, “To really touch something– the bark of a sycamore tree in the gardens; a pinned stag beetle in the Department of Etymology; the exquisitely polished interior of a scallop shell in Dr. Geffard’s workshop–is to love it.”
Do you think there is truly something special about our sense of touch that inspires love? If not, why do you think Marie-Laure falls in love with the objects she touches?
- Some historians have suggested that World War II resulted from the severe economic penalties imposed on Germany in the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I. Did Werner’s struggle with childhood poverty help you understand how the German people might have been seduced by Hitler’s promise of a return to wealth and prestige?
Can you think of any marginalized groups in your own society who might be vulnerable to the promises of a radical leader? Is there a way you could intervene?
- As a child, Werner pesters Frau Elena with unanswerable questions like, “Why doesn’t the glue stick to the inside of the bottle?” These questions seem to reflect Werner’s engagement with the world and his potential to change the world. Later, Werner and Marie-Laure both feel oppressed by unanswerable questions, such as the reasons for cruelty and suffering.
How should we respond to the unanswerable questions in our own lives? Is it best to continue wrestling with them or to let them be?
- Despite her physical limitations, Marie-Laure often seems to have a clearer “view” of the world than Werner does. What do you think allows Marie-Laure to “see” so clearly? What causes Werner’s “blindness?”
- While caring for Marie-Laure, her father observes, “There is the humility of being a father to someone so powerful. As if he were only a narrow conduit for another, greater thing…as though his love for his daughter will outstrip the limits of his body.”
How do you think the sense of being part of something bigger than himself affects her father’s actions? How do other characters connect with something bigger than themselves? Does this connection always lead to ethical decisions?
- Despite her efforts to avoid being involved with the Nazi party during World War II, Jutta feels ashamed of being German for decades after the war has ended. Where do you think this shame is coming from? Have you ever been in a situation where you carried shame or guilt for the actions of others?
- After witnessing the atrocities of World War I, Etienne secludes himself in his house and begins broadcasting a radio program for children. Why do you think he chooses to address his program to children?
- Some of the most powerful characters representing the French Resistance in this novel are the old women organized by Madame Manec. What qualities do you think these old women possess that make them well-suited for the Resistance?
- After Frederick is dismissed from school, Werner reflects, “Frederick said we don’t have choices, don’t own our lives, but in the end it was Werner who pretended there were no choices, Werner who watched Frederick dump the pail of water at [the prisoner’s] feet–I will not.”
How do you think Frederick would explain this situation if he were able to speak for himself? Do you think his decision to have mercy on the prisoner allowed him to take ownership over his life?
Selected Reviews for All the Light We Cannot See
“…it really bothers me when tragedies are capitalized and twisted to fit some glorifying narrative. It feels just a bit odd to turn truly horrifying events into something beautiful and poetical. I feel like there’s a real danger to viewing events through rose tinted glasses.”
“Werner is even more troubling – while he is troubled by brutality he witnesses at the Nazi school, he seems resigned to it. Werner neither openly embraces Nazism, nor condemns it – he’s indifferent to the whole experience and role he plays. It’s as if Doerr never gave Werner the opportunity to grow up, choosing instead to preserve the young boy, fascinated by radio – which goes contrary to what boys and children in general experience in any war, which instantly strips them of their childhoods forever.”
“From the first to last page, there is a running theme of interconnectedness, of invisible lines running parallel to one another and sometimes, just sometimes, crossing in the strangest of ways. These two lives we are introduced to seem to be worlds apart, and yet they come together and influence one another. It was this, more than the predictably awful tale of war, that made me feel quite emotional.”
“I was so amazed with the way that the author was able to heighten all my senses in a way that I felt like I knew what it was like to be blind. In most well-written books you get of a sense of what the characters look like and follow them throughout the book almost as if you are on a voyage, but with this novel, I could imagine what it was like to be in Marie-Laure’s shoes. The descriptives were so beautifully intricate that I could imagine the atmosphere through touch and sound. It was amazing, really.”
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3 Books Like All the Light We Cannot See
Doerr’s book was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and if your book group likes reading prize winners, we have guides for more Pulitzer, Booker and National Book Award winners. We also cover more of WWII with our book club guide for The Nightingale and The Tattooist of Auschwitz.
Fall of Giants, Ken Follett
Most of us are well-versed in the events of World War II, while its predecessor, World War I, remains obscure. If you’d like to educate yourself about “the War to End All Wars,” Ken Follett’s Fall of Giants is the book for you.
Like All the Light We Cannot See, The Fall of Giants follows a group of regular people whose lives become intertwined by the mechanics of war. Follett renders the lives of his characters in great detail, turning the war into a sensory experience. If you like, you could read The Fall of Giants as a chilling prelude to all the World War II books you know and love.
The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert
If you found yourself swept away by Marie-Laure’s love for the natural world, you will be sure to appreciate the botanically-gifted heroine of Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things. Like Marie-Laure (and Etienne and Werner), Alma’s careful observation of the world around her begins to reveal the interconnected nature of all life, which in turn leads her to make startling scientific discoveries and even to venture into the spiritual realm–in pursuit of true love.
A Long Petal of the Sea, Isabel Allende
Officially speaking, Spain remained neutral during World War II. However, throughout the war, Spain was kept under the thumb of Generalisimo Franco, a fascist dictator who could have given Hitler and Mussolini a run for their money in terms of the brutality of his regime. Isabel Allende’s A Long Petal of the Sea follows the lives of the Spanish refugees who, in an eerie parallel to the Jewish refugees of World War II, were forced to flee their country to avoid genocide.
And since Franco’s reign extended long after the Axis powers of World War II were crushed, Allende’s characters carry the heartache of watching their country struggle under a despotic dictator well into the 1970s.
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Authored by Mallory Miles
Mallory Miles is a biologist for the US Forest Service and an avid reader since childhood. When she’s not combing the woods for endangered salamanders and orchids, she can be found at home, reading novels or writing her own stories, which have been published in Ecotone and The Stringybark Anthology.
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