Week 1: Discussion of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

all-the-light-we-cannot-seeAnna and I would like to welcome you to the first discussion of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.

For this week, we’ve read sections zero and one.  Feel free to join the conversation in the comments.

What are your initial thoughts about section zero and the atmosphere?

Serena: I found the section very short, but in such a short time there is a great deal of anxiety about the bombers flying over.  Marie-Laure LeBlanc is alone in her uncle’s apartment wondering when he will return and as a child we can only imagine what she’s thinking.  Meanwhile, Werner Pfennig is in an area of the city where the bombs are more present and scary (or so it seems).

Anna: The first section thrusts readers into the action right away, and the quote at the beginning already indicates that anyone in Saint-Malo is going to be in trouble as the incendiary bombs rain down. Both Marie-Laure and Werner seem to be in impossible situations, right in the thick of it, and you can’t fathom how they will come out unscathed.

What do you think about the tale of the blue diamond, known as the Sea of Flames?

Serena: I love how the kids get so involved in the story and believe it but Marie, who lives in France, seems to be the only skeptic, she’s also very practical.  She suggests why keep the diamond locked up when you could just appease the Goddess and return the diamond to the river.  I’m not sure what the overall meaning behind the story might be other than one can sacrifice those around them for an obsession and risk losing it all.

Anna: It seems as though the story explains the stone Marie-Laure grabs out of the model in the very beginning before the bombing, and then one must wonder whether the legend has any truth to it, given the situation she is in. It certainly had me wondering where her father was at that moment and whether his absence could be attributed to the legend. I’m looking forward to seeing how the story of the diamond and Marie-Laure’s story converge.

We now have two characters clearly from opposing sides in the war.  What does this do for the reader and how are these characters similar and different?

Serena:  Marie is a young girl already hit by blindness, and as the war approaches it is clear that she hears more about the possible invasion than her father is willing to tell her.  She seems much more perceptive than her father, though he could be in denial and just wanting to protect her.  Meanwhile, Werner is an orphan with only his sister for comfort in a Children’s Home in Zollverein — a coal mining town in Essen, Germany.  He’s good with mechanics and math, and he loves making and fixing things like radios but he’s slated for mine work, just like their father who died there.  He’s happy to stay in the dark about the real world around him, even when he sees other orphans join the brown shirts and goose-stepping.  His sister eats up the news they get on their radio, but he wants to protect her as well.  Marie and Werner are both smart and eager to solve puzzles — whether that’s a box with candy inside or a broken radio.  But Marie has had her father’s love to guide her and he has a steady job, but Werner and his sister have had to fend for themselves since their father’s death.  I can’t wait to see where they go once the war really kicks in.

Anna: Marie-Laure and Werner are similar in their desire for learning and knowledge. He is good at problem-solving and building things, while she learns through books, the museum, and what she sees and touches. Marie-Laure seems more frightened about the war and the Germans, due to her blindness and the horror stories she hears. Werner seems concerned about the war, his sister’s use of the radio, in particular, but he seems more worried about his impending job in the mines that killed their father and his desire to do more with his life than about the Nazi oppression. Marie-Laure may be more perceptive than her father, but the narrative was mostly from her point of view, not his, at least not until they were fleeing Paris and stopped for the night. It seems both she and Werner are similar in their blindness, she in the literal sense and he in that he seems focused more on his gaining knowledge through books and the radio than in his observations of the outside world.

What do you think about the various scientific descriptions in these sections?

Serena: I really like the parts with Werner and learning about light and waves, etc.  This will likely play into the title of the novel — at least I think it will.  I love how he learns from just listening to the radio and how he puzzles out problems just by quieting his mind and thinking.  What Marie-Laure experiences is different; she’s curious about the world around her because she can no longer see, but it doesn’t seem as though the animals in the Mollusks department interest her.  She’s more interested in her father’s work with the keys and vaults.  I see that she needs to pass her time somewhere while her father is working, but I wonder if her bumbling around the museum herself and uncovering things unexpectedly might have been better.  There are parts where people find her wandering, but we don’t really see what she is doing while she is wandering.  I can’t wait to see where this is headed!

Anna: Sometimes I feel as though these descriptions bog down what otherwise is a beautiful narrative, but at other times, they mesh well with what we know about the characters. The descriptions of light were the most interesting, with Werner learning from the French professor about light being invisible, and Marie-Laure indicating that her blindness was not darkness but varying degrees of light. These little tidbits do a great job to unite the two characters at this stage of the novel. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

That’s it for this week.  Please feel free to answer the questions in the comments and continue the discussion by asking questions of your own.

We hope you’ll stop by next Friday, March 10 for our discussion of Sections 2 and 3.  Happy reading!



  1. I hope we get a good discussion going here today!

  2. I was struck by how determined Marie-Laure seemed to be to conquer her surroundings and find out the details of the city and places, buildings, and streets that she cannot see. I don’t know if you have reached this part as yet. I read the book some many months ago.

  3. Yes, there’s a bit of that already in the first sections. I also was struck by how determined her father was to make her independent and exercise her mind and just challenge her in general.

  4. Harvee, I agree that she seems very determined to learn about the town around her and how to get places. She seems to be a very determined girl, and that must come from her father.

  5. Knowing the city well will come in handy for her later on when the Germans come in.

  6. So I finished reading sections zero and one last night and I can’t wait to continue. My first impression is that I like the setting of WWII in Europe (I actually looked up Saint-Malo) and the intro to Marie-Laure and Werner, two very unique characters. I like the short alternating chapters of each character’s viewpoint. I am anxious to see how the two characters’ lives will finally converge.

    Anna I have the exact same thoughts as you regarding the blue diamond. Is it the same as the stone Marie-Laure removes from the model? The legend of the curse stirred up my curiosity, of course and makes me wonder how it all ties into the whole story.

    I love both Marie-Laure and Werner’s characters because both have to overcome major obstacles, whether blindness, extreme poverty or a hopeless future. Both Marie-Laure and Werner are curious about things and pursue their curiosity. They come from opposing sides of the war, but they are children molded and tied down by their surrounding and situation. We can see how an orphan child living in Germany could easily be recruited for Hitler’s Youth.

    Serena, I too picked up on the topic of light and sound waves and Marie-Laure’s blindness as playing a part in the title. I liked reading the scientific expression whether regarding the radio or what Marie-Laure was exploring at the museum. It helped me to see what both of these children’s world was like for them through their eyes, without the use of technology.

    I also liked the relationship both of these children have with the main adult in their lives. Marie-Laure with her father who lovingly teaches her life-altering and survival skills. And Frau Elena who nurtures Werner’s love of science and tells him he will do great things. How inspiring for both these children. These are all flawed characters with goodness in them. They are believable and propel the story forward.

    Overall, the start of reading this book reminded me a bit of a locomotive that starts off nice and slow setting the pace and then working its way to full speed ahead. That’s what I think this book will be like. Looking forward to our next discussion!

  7. Thanks, Laura. I hope that you’re right about the locomotive. I feel that steady pace building too and in the next sections, I’m sure there will be a lot more momentum.

  8. A locomotive is the perfect way to describe it so far. I’m really looking forward to starting the next sections today.Their relationships to their parental figures and the challenges they must overcome certainly make them interesting characters, and then placing them in such a period of chaos makes it even more interesting. There is a sense of the story building to something big, and knowing from the start what happens in Saint-Malo has me worried for them!

  9. Like Harvee what stuck out to me about the first section is Marie-Laure being so young and alone. I couldn’t help but think how terriefied I’d be with the sound of bombs all around me let alone how a child would feel. You can pick up on her strength right from the beginning.

  10. Oops. Forgot to speak about the characters. I find both Marie-Laure and Werner both very strong and independent characters. Despite being blind Marie-Laure still has a strong sense of wanting to learn and do things for herself. As for Werner he seems quite intelligent with his thirst for knowlwdge as well. We see early on that he likes to fix things and has an inate abiltity to do so.

  11. I agree with you, Darlene. I’ve been struck since the beginning by how strong both characters are despite being so young and disadvantaged in different ways.

  12. Yes, I was struck by the age of Marie and the bombs — that would be incredibly terrifying. I love that both of these characters are strong and thirst for knowledge.

  13. […] like to read and/or participate in a more in-depth discussion of the book, but beware of spoilers: Week 1, Week 2, Week 3, Week 4, Week 5, and Week […]

  14. […] Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4 Week 5 Week 6 […]

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