All the Light We Cannot See setting Saint-Malo, France

“All the Light We Cannot See”: Clinging to Good in the Midst of Evil

A Couples Reading Together review of the novel “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr. Check out our He Says / She Says opinions, along with notes about the Netflix series based on the book.

I don’t think those of us who haven’t lived through a war can truly imagine what it’s like. Which is one reason I think “All the Light We Cannot See” is so incredible.

Set in France and Germany during World War II, the story follows the twists and turns in the lives of two young people and how they eventually meet in the last days of the liberation of France. Anthony Doerr brings the character’s experiences to life with his vivid portrayals. We feel as if we’re there in person, living through the horrors of the war and the brutality of the Nazi regime, as well as the many ways in which ordinary citizens exhibit bravery, kindness, and compassion.

The two main characters start out in very different locales.

A blind girl named Marie-Laure lives in Paris with her father, who is the principal locksmith for the National Museum of Natural History. Werner is a German orphan from a coal-mining town who has exceptional abilities with anything mechanical, especially radios. He is conscripted into the Nazi military as a young boy. In short, alternating chapters we learn about their lives before and during the war.

It’s almost impossible to explain the plot of the novel in brief. Mr. Doerr describes it this way on his website: “The power of radio technology in the first half of the 20th century and its use as both an instrument of disinformation and liberation; a cursed diamond; children in Nazi Germany; puzzles; snails; the Natural History Museum in Paris; courage; fear; bombs; keys and locks; the magical seaside town of Saint-Malo in France; and the ways in which people, against all odds, try to be kind to one another.” The latter is the most powerful thing about this story to me – the way both Marie-Laure and Werner try to hold on to something good through all of their trials.

Eventually, they both end up in the walled city of Saint-Malo on the northwest coast of France.

There are numerous sources online where you can read about the history of this real-life city and what happened there. During the battle of Saint-Malo, the city was bombed by Allied forces. It was 80% destroyed, with more than 680 buildings being demolished, but was rebuilt after the war. Some of the filming for the Netflix series based on the book took place in Saint-Malo.

Marie-Laure’s and Werner’s stories culminate there, along with that of a German officer vigorously pursuing a priceless jewel entrusted to Marie-Laure by her father before he is captured. I won’t give any spoilers, but I felt like the final scenes in Saint-Malo were intense, yet came to a (mostly!) satisfying conclusion.

Read to the end for our comments on the Netflix series. As for the book, we highly recommend “All the Light We Cannot See” for couples reading together, and here’s why:

A Couples Reading Together review of All the Light We Cannot See

Bob says:

I will have to admit up front that I had a hard time focusing on this book in the beginning. It had a lot of moving parts! But as I continued to read, it got to where I couldn’t put it down. I needed to finish it to see where all of this ended. Did my favorite characters survive? World War II was such a devastating time in history, and this story shows that. Although it is fiction, I feel as though the author portrayed the invasion of France accurately. I recommend you read this book together. The story is great, and I think you will agree.

Liz says:

I love the way the title of this book can be applied to the story in so many ways. To me, “All the Light We Cannot See” describes the main theme of holding on to good (the “Light”) even in the midst of intense darkness (the war and everything about the Nazi regime). Marie-Laure and Werner were caught up in impossible circumstances beyond their control, and yet they both clung to something noble and pure that carried them through. This story was engrossing and inspiring. I think both men and women will enjoy reading it.

“All the Light We Cannot See” is now a four-part mini series.

Bob and I were eager to watch the series on Netflix after we finished reading the book. Unfortunately, we were disappointed with the film adaptation.

It can be jarring to see the characters you’ve been picturing while reading a book come to life completely differently. That’s happened to me a number of times when a book I enjoyed was made into a movie or series. But that wasn’t the only problem here.

What surprised and dismayed us was how much the producers of the series changed the story. There were large segments of the plot that were completely different than the book. And in our opinion, not for the better.

Maybe the most annoying thing about the series was the way subtle elements in the story were over-explained in the film version. The depth of both the story and the characters in the book seemed to be lost in the Netflix version. If we had not read the book first, we might have been more forgiving of the flaws we noted. But when comparing the two, the series falls exceptionally flat.

How about you? Have you read the book? Or watched the Netflix series? Let us know what you thought in the comments. And if you’re looking for another Couples Reading Together recommendation, check out our review of “A Gentleman in Moscow.”

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