Anna and I would like to welcome you to the second discussion of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.
For this week, we’ve read sections two and three. Feel free to join the conversation in the comments.
We return to the immediate impact of WWII in section two. How do this section affect you?
SERENA: I found this section very gripping in that you could feel the anxiety and fear of the characters of Werner and Marie-Laure. Marie is wandering around during the bombing and using her memory to find water and check things out, but Werner is trapped in a place that appears to be caving in. There is serious fear that he could die, while Marie-Laure seems more calm as she navigates her way around her uncle’s home. I was enthralled and worried for both of these characters.
ANNA: I definitely was worried for both of them. It seems like a hopeless situation, with Werner having no way out and Marie-Laure being unable to see whether there is a way out. Doerr does a great job, even in his sparse prose, of enabling you to feel things, in this case the anxiety and fear. And the structure of going back and forth in time makes you feel unsettled since you have no idea how they will be able to survive the bombing.
During the entrance exams, Werner has time to see how the other students act during the trials, particularly the jump from the platform into the flag. When it’s his turn, did you expect him to hesitate, why or why not?
SERENA: From what we’ve seen of Werner, he seems to plow headlong into things without worrying too much about the consequences. Part of that seems to be due to his background as a poor orphan and not having much to lose at this point, but the other part of it is likely tied to his desire to become an engineer, to do great things, to learn more, and to not disappoint his sponsor. It demonstrates his great courage, even in the face of danger, which will serve him well later on.
ANNA: I didn’t think he would hesitate. I think he views this as a great experience to further his education, and he wasn’t going to let a chance to avoid working in the mines pass him by. You see a little later how he is scared of being the one singled out as weak. I think fear is another motivator for sure, maybe not as strong as his ambition, at least not yet.
In these sections time shifts from the more immediate past to a time when war was not so present and Marie-Laure and Werner were still children coping with the changes before them. How do you think these time shifts serve the narrative and do you like them?
SERENA: These shifts in time seem to show us how these children have matured and what their roles have become — at least a little — but they also show how quickly things have changed for both of them. When we’re further in the past before war is so immediate, we can see a hope and a light, but when the war is pressing down upon them, it is harder to see. I think these shifts in time help the reader understand that the hope is still there in the darkness, but you just have to look harder to find it.
ANNA: It definitely helps show their growth and evolution, how they mature in general and how they change as the atmosphere associated with the war changes. We also get to see what they are moving towards, and hopefully the development we witness in the years prior to the bombing will make for a realistic resolution to the novel. I like the time shifts because they build the tension, give us something to look forward to, and provide a lot of food for thought (i.e. where are Marie-Laure’s father and great-uncle, is there anything for them to hope for that late in the war, did Werner ultimately accept the Nazi ideology?)
When Marie-Laure and her father reach her Uncle Etienne’s home, did you expect him to be the broadcaster of the scientific shows Werner listened to? What role do you think this revelation plays in the narrative?
SERENA: I love that she discovers this after getting her uncle to calm down and return to reality and away from the ghosts that haunt his mind from the gassing he experienced in WWI. Her light touch helps him to shift focus on a hope that he and his brother had long ago before the previous war. It seems to imply that education can go a long way in helping society stay on the right path, but it also demonstrates the power that education and knowledge can have without those providing the education even knowing it. It’s almost like a secret hope.
ANNA: I had a feeling he would have something to do with the broadcasts Werner and Jutta listened to as soon as we saw the numerous radios and related parts in his home. The story behind those recordings was very sad and very hopeful at the same time, that you can actually reach someone far away with your words. I think the relationship between Etienne and Marie-Laure is beautiful, especially their imaginative play times. He sees her hunger for learning, and I think he sees a little of himself in her. They both have challenges that make normal life difficult, yet they both have found ways to cope, and I think they give each other a sense of hope and acceptance.
In this section, we see the close relationship between Werner and his sister, Jutta, begin to break down. Do you think, like Jutta says, that Werner is lying to himself?
SERENA: Jutta seems wise beyond her years here. It’s clear that she listened more carefully to those foreign stations than he did, which makes sense given his interest in scientific things. But like an older sibling will do, he dismisses her concerns about Hitler Youth and the school because he merely sees the good it can do. In many ways his optimistic outlook is the hope in their story. He wants to be their hero and in order to achieve his goals and be that hero there is a need to lie to himself. It’s sad that their relationship has cracked, even though they love one another. When he’s away at school and the sensors are at the letters, you have to wonder how safe she’ll be given her comments in those letters that are blacked out.
ANNA: After Werner goes to Herr Siedler’s house to fix his radio and returns, he seems changed. He breaks the radio he and Jutta had been using to listen to the French professor’s science lessons, whether truly to protect Jutta or whether to protect his own aspirations is unclear. It’s obvious that he loves his sister and wants her to be happy for him and this chance he’s been given to make something of himself and get away from the mines, but he is unwilling to listen to Jutta when she tells him what she’s heard from the foreign broadcasts about the Nazi atrocities. I think in a way he is indeed lying to himself, wanting to believe that he can go to the Hitler Youth school and not be swept up in the Nazi ideology, that it really is just his way of getting out of the mining town, out of poverty, and that he can come back to her and Frau Elena and whisk them off to a better life. I think it is interesting that Jutta is younger and just as inquisitive as Werner but sees these things that he doesn’t, or doesn’t want to admit that he sees. I think she is afraid that he is going to come back and be like the other Hitler Youth boys in the orphanage, all rough and violent.
We are introduced to Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel, who is very interested in getting his hands on the museum’s diamond. Then Marie-Laure’s father is almost obsessed with the one he is carrying and the legend behind it that we learned at the beginning of the book. Do you think the diamond Marie-Laure’s father has is the real one? What do you think the importance of this story line is, so far, to the overall plot?
SERENA: Von Rumpel is cold and calculating and his patience and determination are scarier than someone who uses brute force to achieve his goals. He’s able to allow the museum officials to stew in their own worst-case scenarios and give up the vault rather than resort to violence. That takes great patience and control. Those in that much control are often the most dangerous, and I think we’ll be seeing more of him in later chapters. I’m not sure if the one her father has is the real one, but that doesn’t matter at this point as they both believe that it is. Somehow they seem to think if they can protect it then there is still hope. This diamond — fake or real — is a light in the dark, something to hold onto when the radios are gone, her father is gone, and she is left with little more than her dark world and a model her father created Perhaps she too hopes to be heroic in protecting it, though I’m not sure about that so much.
ANNA: Von Rumpel is an interesting character. He is calm and collected but very demanding, focused, and sinister. I’m not sure who has the real diamond at this point, but I believe this aspect of the story is all connected to the theme of light and hope. Believing he has the real diamond gives Marie-Laure’s father a purpose on the one hand, but a feeling of despair and failure on the other. When Marie-Laure takes it out of the model at the beginning of the novel, it seems like it gives her something to live for, something to protect. It certainly provides an interesting layer to the story, and I can’t wait to read more.
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 17 for our discussion of Sections 4 and 5. Happy reading!