All the Light We Can Not See: Book Club Discussion



Ten years in the writing, Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See is an epic work of historical fiction. With richly detailed language and characters who are both brave and heartbreaking, Doerr weaves together the stories of a French girl named Marie-Laure who has lost her eyesight and a German orphan named Werner. As Hitler’s occupied territory grows, Marie-Laure and Werner’s lives and families are torn apart by the war, yet this gorgeous novel is the story of people who, against the odds, find good in one another.

SPOILER ALERT: Don't read if you do not wish to know what happens in the book!

Appetizing Reads Book Club Discussion:

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?

No one seemed to remember the epigraphs, so we referred back to the book.

The two epigraphs were the following: 

"In August 1944 the historic walled city of Saint-Malo the brightest jewel of the Emerald Coast of Brittany. France was almost destroyed by fire.... Of the 865 buildings within the walls, only 182 remained standing and all were damaged to some degree." -Phillip Beck

"It would not have been possible for us to take power or to use it in ways we have without the radio" -Joseph Goebbels

The 'buildings' from the first epigraph I believe symbolizes the people. Not everyone died from the war but everyone was damaged/changed to some degree.

The second one speaks to how important the radio was during this time.

During the discussion of comparing the radio to the internet everyone agreed that the radio was more comparable to T.V. Everyone relied on the radio in that day and age, and yes now everyone relies on the internet, but the internet you can control more, where as the TV and "News" can be used more for propaganda purposes.

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?

Because the book was not told in chronological order it could get frustrating to try to keep track of what was happening. However, it helped give it the element of suspense.

3. Whose story did you enjoy the most? Was there any character you wanted more insight into?

This was a topic that not everyone agreed on. Some felt that Marie Laure was poorly developed and others felt that her character was the best developed. Werner was an interesting character because he knew what was right from wrong, but still allowed them to bully him into doing things he knew was wrong.

The Father/Daughter dynamic was very compelling. Marie Laures father was incredible he went above and beyond for her (for example carving the entire village out of wood for her).

Her relationship with her uncle was very natural and touching.


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)?

This quote was my favorite from the book and has since stuck with me. I thought of it more from the view point that, yes Marie Laure went blind, but all of us need to open our eyes and enjoy life before it's over.

However, Tami brought up a great point, this works with the political tone of the book as well. We all need to open our eyes but also open our minds and understand what really is going on.

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?

Fear is mostly the fear of the unknown and things that you can not control. During war there would literally be lights that would float above the trenches so the enemy was able to see and could then hit their target.  When the lights were used the opponent was then exposed and made vulnerable.

A lot of people have the fear of putting themselves out there and being vulnerable. It's easy to be afraid of what is out of our control.

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?

Etienne was the 'frog' in the analogy 'jumping out of the pot'.

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?

Marie Laure puts herself at risk when she transports the bread with written messages in it.  She is a bit naive to the dangers she is facing, but eventually she must realize what she is doing, but she continues to do it. Some of the limits of the book not being in chronological order was that you didn't realize how much she had aged.

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?

Marie Laure never once complains about being blind. It didn't stop her in anything she wanted to accomplish. Her relationship with her father set her up for success. Although she was blind he still had firm expectations and gave her his full support.

This part of the book really opened my eyes because I had read books about war, and war is completely frightening, but I can't image how frightening it must be to those with disabilities.


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?

Maurie Laure facing others and transporting the bread from the bakery was a moment for her. Etienne walking out to look for Maurie Laure was a pivotal moment for him.

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?

Maurie Laure could have potentially thought that because it was a safe place for her to hide it could be a good place for him to hide.  She didn't want to carry the burden, she didn't want it but she wanted it in safe hands.

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?

It did have the power of the Sea of Flame, it brought bad luck kind of like the hope diamond.

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?

Why did she give Werner the key?! What happened to her father? Why did he step on a mine!!?!

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?

This was very common at that time. Jutta was never completely on board with what the Nazi's were doing and always knew it was wrong. There was a lot of passive anti party and national guilt, this rang true for most of Europe.

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?

It was welcomed. It was nice to see them living their lives. People felt that they needed to know that Marie Laure was okay.

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?

Von Rumpel with the ultimate evil. Marie Laure was the ultimate good. Everyone else was somewhere on the continuum. Werner's heart was good but he didn't always speak up and let a lot of things happen, as a lot of the germans did. It's not all/ nothing there is a lot of grey area when it comes to good and evil. For every evil French Perfumer there is a Schindler. (It was noted that if you haven't seen Schindler's list, you should.)

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READKasey Taube