Week 6: Discussion of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Serena and I would like to welcome you to the sixth and final discussion of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Feel free to join the conversation in the comments.

Were you surprised that Volkheimer encouraged Werner to save Marie-Laure? What did you think about Werner’s actions in the Le Blanc house and the time he spent with Marie-Laure?

SERENA: I wasn’t surprised by Volkheimer’s encouragement. It seems that he always looked out for Werner and wanted the best for him. He seemed to know that saving Marie-Laure was important to Werner.

I didn’t actually think too much about Werner’s actions in the house other than hurry up and save Marie! I was glad that he made it in time, even though there was some big tension there with von Rumpel. I also think that in times of war, emotions are heightened, and his connection with Marie-Laure is something that can’t be explained too rationally.

ANNA: I agree. I’m glad that Werner was able to do the right thing when it counted. Overall, I think he was just a kid who grew up in the wrong place at the wrong time. He really wanted to become something, and his intelligence was twisted by the Nazis and used in deplorable ways.

In addition to the heightened emotions that accompany war, Werner was really just a child, and Marie-Laure’s connection to his childhood and a less complicated time played into his feelings as well. He wanted to be done with the war, and he wanted something good to come out of it, and a love story would be one way that could happen.

I was torn about Marie-Laure’s reaction to finding out about Werner years after the war. It seems that she meant so much more to him than he meant to her. That broke me up, but of course, we saw both sides to the story. Marie-Laure was grateful for Werner saving her, but when it boils down, he was a German and she’d lost her father, so it was so much more complicated than that. Also, Marie-Laure has decades of hindsight and life that Werner was never able to have.

SERENA: I think because he heard her great-uncle on the radio, Werner’s connection to her is stronger. Really she doesn’t meet him until he saves her and he only tells her of what he has done to protect her afterward, so it’s hard for her to feel the same connection. I wasn’t surprised by her reaction because she’s so removed from it now and the loss of so many has left her with little connection to the past. Her only connections now are her work, her lovers, and her daughter, so much more of her life is grounded in the present than in the past.

It’s sad we don’t get to see what would have happened had Werner lived. I wonder if the war would have broken him so much that he had given up his dreams, but he was so creative, maybe not.

ANNA: I wasn’t surprised by her reaction, really. Just knowing how much she meant to Werner from following his thoughts and being sad about his death made me wish it could be that way.

Unfortunately, I think he was already broken by the war. Frederick and the little girl affected him so deeply that he was haunted by them. Maybe that would have lessened over time, and his saving Marie-Laure seemed to redeem himself in his eyes a little bit. His death shows just how sick and beaten down he was, the visions he was having, and his longing for home, the light, etc.

What did you think of Jutta’s meeting with Volheimer and with Marie-Laure?

ANNA: I think Jutta needed Volkheimer’s visit and her subsequent visits to Saint-Malo and to Paris to see Marie-Laure for closure. Werner’s notebook brought her back to the happier, simpler times when they were children, and her visit to Saint-Malo helped her try to understand Werner’s last letter to her about the sea. And I think knowing that he had fallen in love, whether it was real or not, whether it was just for a moment, made her feel as though Werner had lived and done something good despite having gone to the Hitler Youth school and fought for the Nazis, which were things she couldn’t talk about after the war.

SERENA: I think the meeting with Volkheimer was so odd, but he never really talked much. He sort of just drops the duffle off, eats food, and then spends some time with Max before leaving. It’s funny that the husband doesn’t really interact or think much of the meeting…like its normal. But we also get a much more internal story here from Jutta, who has been so much out of the story. It’s good to see her reflect on her brother.

I love that the meeting between Jutta and Marie-Laure is not overly emotional; it seems that they both have moved beyond the past and have their own lives. They have moved on but this gives them the closure they need.

ANNA: It seems like Jutta and her husband had the kind of relationship where they respect their wartime experiences and whatever ways they’ve used to move past them. He seemed to know about Werner but also that Volkheimer’s presence upset or at least jarred Jutta. A lot of the WWII novels I’ve read that focus on Germans in the aftermath seem to portray them as stoic and not overly emotional. Not sure how accurate that is or whether it plays into Jutta’s reaction here.

What do you think about what happened to the diamond, in terms of its overall importance to the story?

SERENA: That diamond…I want to believe that Werner released it into the sea and that he saved the house model to remember Marie-Laure. I want to believe that he let that go for something much more precious — a symbol of the boy with the hopes and dreams he once had before the war tore it up.

ANNA: I wish we’d been given a glimpse of Werner fishing the house out of the ocean and what his thought process was there. Von Rumpel seemed to think Werner was at the house for the same reason he was, but Werner didn’t know anything about the diamond. So it’s likely that he didn’t grasp it’s value, especially not in the midst of the chaos of the cease fire, and that he would believe the house that Marie-Laure set free and the key she gave him to be more precious.

SERENA: Von Rumpel had a one track mind where that diamond was concerned. I’m glad he was dispatched and not by his disease.

ANNA: I agree. He exemplified the Nazi greed and superstition.

What did you think about the scene with Frederick, three decades after the war?

SERENA: As for Frederick, I love that his mother — even though she seemed like she was a social butterfly and not really connected to her son before — continued to care for him after the war. I wonder what happened to his over-bearing father. I love the symbols of birds and how that seems to bring Frederick back to life even if for an instant. His love of birds seemed to be something that was really ingrained in him. It makes sense that a bird would awaken him, even if it wasn’t the picture Werner kept for him.

ANNA: I didn’t know what to think of his mother at first, but she turned out not to be so bad. She truly seemed to care about him, especially when she gets the picture of the birds Werner had meant to send him all those years ago. I thought it was telling that in the midst of getting Marie-Laure out of the house, amid his hunger and thirst, he saw the book of birds and pulled out a specific picture for Frederick. I know Werner felt guilty about what happened with Frederick, but he also was his friend first.

SERENA: I loved that he still thought of Frederick as a friend even though he was guilt-ridden about what happened. I was glad to see that the mother was not that high-society, stuck on connections, and not-caring mother that I thought she was.

I wonder if I would have just been satisfied with the scene where you see Marie-Laure and Etienne reunite and not all this decades later stuff.

ANNA: I don’t think the very last scene in 2014 was necessary, but I’m glad for the ones in 1974. I myself found some closure in learning what happened to Marie-Laure, Jutta, Volkheimer, and Frederick in the years after the war, what they had accomplished and learned. I think for some it is important to how those who survived moved on, whether they made something of themselves, etc.

Do you think the book was deserving of the Pulitzer Prize?

SERENA: As I didn’t read any of the other finalists, I can’t really say. I do think this is a good read and very well done. Is it my favorite in WWII historical fiction, probably not. Not to say that I didn’t find it engaging from start to finish.

ANNA: I agree. Without having read the other contenders, I do believe it is worthy. It is well written, complex, and seems well researched. I really liked it — I think it’s worthy of a 5-star rating — but it isn’t my most favorite novel set during that time.

We hope you enjoyed the book and our discussions as much as we did. Please feel free to answer the questions in the comments and continue the discussion by asking questions of your own. We’d love to hear your thoughts.

We’ve made a slight change in our readalong schedule for the rest of the year. We will announce the next readalong soon. Stay tuned!

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Week 5: Discussion of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

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

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

What do you think the purpose of the “Fort National” opener is at the beginning of Section 8?

ANNA:  Well, we know from the very beginning of the book that that’s where Etienne and the other Frenchmen  were taken. And now we have to wonder whether he has been killed. It’s looking pretty bleak all around. What do you think?

SERENA: It’s almost as if the author wants us to buy into the legend of that diamond, and that Marie-Laure is only alive because she has it, but the consequence is that everyone she loves ends up dying.  But are they dead? Her father? Etienne?  We don’t really know yet.  But maybe that’s because my mind is skeptical about the whole curse.

ANNA:  I think the curse is only as real as they want to believe it is. It certainly is an interesting layer to the story. Life and death is, in many ways, a matter of chance, especially during war. The real danger is the von Rumpel believes the legend is real.

SERENA: I agree with you on von Rumpel.  And that is dangerous.

What did you think of the scene where Werner and Marie-Laure cross paths?

SERENA:  I think we knew that they had to cross paths, and I think it was in a way that was less intrusive to Marie-Laure’s story.  I think because he sees her and follows her, it builds a strong connection in him, especially after the death of the other young girl.  This is the thread I think he’s going to need to pull himself to safety or at least redeem himself before he dies.

ANNA:  I liked the way it was handled, and I agree that this connection is going to be the pinnacle for him. There were two things I was struck by most when reading these sections. First, when Werner hears Marie-Laure over the radio reading from her book, and then her fear about von Rumpel being in the house, and he wants to be able to save her. And in that moment, he thinks about the Nazi fervor and how all boys were caught up in it, but how Jutta saw through it all. And second, you realize this observation comes after his desire to save the professor, how hearing his voice over the radio again was “as if he has been drowning for as long as he can remember and somebody has fetched him up for air.” This is where Werner chooses to act, where he finally grows a backbone, where he finds himself again. Though whether he is able to help Marie-Laure seems improbable but still anyone’s guess.

What did you think about this line: “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…”

SERENA: I’ve thought long and hard about Frederick’s statement since the beginning because I’ve always thought that statement was a mild excuse for someone who is too scared or to paralyzed to make a decision.  People who passively make decisions, all the while claiming that they are not making decisions, are deluding themselves.  However, when Frederick said it, it gave me pause because he did make a decision.  He refused to dump that cold water on the prisoner, he refused to give into the bullies. I know he didn’t have a choice but to go to the school, but he was strong enough to make a decision or two on his own and stay true to himself — though with dire consequences.  So it makes me wonder why he would say it at all.

Perhaps he wanted to demonstrate to Werner that he had made a choice in not intervening and going along to get along with the others.  Or maybe he just wanted to make peace with his friend and keep him happy in his delusion.  If that’s the case, it seems he may have failed him a little bit as a friend.

As for Werner, it’s good that this has come to the forefront for him now.  It’s a critical time for him; he’s been going with the flow and ignoring what’s around him for too long.  He can only live outside reality so long.

ANNA: Yes, not doing something is a choice in itself. I think maybe the point was that part of their Nazi indoctrination was that they weren’t supposed to make choices, just follow orders. And Werner was so torn about what he was seeing and being told that it was just easier for him to say he didn’t have a choice.

Do you think his impending doom is what makes him take action? If so, explain?

ANNA: After what happened to Frederick and the little girl, and the memories brought back by hearing the professor’s voice, this time Werner has to do something. I don’t know whether it’s impending doom that compels him to take action; it almost seems as though he’d been in a sort of trance for so long, and Etienne’s voice seems to knock him out of it. It was something familiar and soothing, and it was an important part of his childhood, what gave him the ambition to want something more than a life in the mines. I think the professor symbolized light and hope for Werner and that was a driving force in his decision to keep quiet about the professor’s location. It’s almost like it made him forget the war for a minute, as he thinks about going to the professor’s home and having a conversation with him, and then realizes that can’t ever happen.

There was a definite shift in these sections, with Werner emerging from his fever and seeming to grow stronger, deciding to act for a change, and Marie-Laure showing signs of weakness. Don’t get me wrong, I still think she’s an extremely strong character, but we see the toll the war and her blindness and the loss of her father have taken on her. She is knocked off kilter by von Rumpel’s appearance at the grotto, the fear of being found out, and realizing that she gave him the bit of information he wanted. And then the lack of food and water in the attic, coupled with the disorientation of not knowing whether it’s day or night or whether von Rumpel is still in the house, and hearing her father’s voice…I was worried that she was going to do something foolish for a moment. What do you think?

SERENA:  I agree; the professor’s voice woke Werner out of a stupor.  He’s been in that too long.  And while he is haunted by the death of that other little girl, I think Marie-Laure’s fate would be more devastating for him because he feels as though he knows the family after listening to those recordings for so long.

Marie-Laure has similarly been awakened from a bubble.  Up until this point, she’s been strong because of her family’s faith in her ability to do anything even though she is blind.  She went about her business as if she were untouchable almost.  Not that she didn’t fear the Germans or what was happening, but that it really didn’t hit her just how vulnerable she is because she is blind.  Von Rumpel saw to that.  Her foundation was definitely shaken by his appearance in the grotto and his questions and insistence.

ANNA:  Speaking of Marie-Laure’s bubble bursting and the diamond, I was struck by her asking Etienne whether he ever felt like she was a curse, and his response that she was the best thing that ever came into his life was so touching. It’s as though he’s finally started to live again, even leaving the house, and then just as he seems to be getting the spring back into his step, he is arrested.

In the letter Werner writes to Jutta, why do you think he talks of his love of the sea and what do you think he is talking about when he says, “It seems big enough to contain everything anyone could ever feel”?

ANNA:  As soon as they arrive in Saint-Malo, Werner is drawn to the sea. It’s almost as if his eyes have finally been opened and he can truly see everything around him, and the sea is certainly a different, brighter view than he had in the drab mining town. I’m not sure exactly what he means when he writes that, but it reminded me of when he first heard the professor and thought about how many miles away his voice was and how far it was carrying, and the sea in its endlessness is a bit like that too. It also seems as though this could be connected to the diamond, the Sea of Flames, which has taken on an importance larger than its physical shape.

SERENA:  I agree, the Sea of Flames is taking on a larger importance.  It seems as though Saint-Malo has become that sea of flames — it’s where everything will come to a tipping point.

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, April 7 for the final discussion. Happy reading!

Week 4: Discussion of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

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

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

Do you feel more hopeful about Marie-Laure or Werner making it out of the bombed ruins alive after reading part six?

SERENA: I’m not all that confident that Werner will make it out.  I still feel like he is trapped and will probably die there.  There is a little more hope for Marie-Laure as she seems to have found herself a place to hide, but we know von Rumpel is patient.  Patience can be a scary thing.

ANNA: I’m trying to be hopeful that Marie-Laure will eventually be able to leave her hiding place and escape and that Werner can get the radio working and get some help. But like you, I am not that confident.

I’m especially curious about Marie-Laure and von Rumpel’s first meeting; it seemed that she knew who it was in the house by his walk.

Why do you think the death of Madame Manec spurred Etienne into action?

ANNA: Madame Manec is one of the few people Etienne was close to, and he was broken up over her death. Her reasoning for joining the resistance seems to have resonated with Etienne, and I think the more he thought on it, it prompted him to act. He also has plenty of other reasons to resist: his scars from the first war against the Germans, his hidden transmitter in the attic making it easier for him to take on the job, his desire to reach others through the radio waves.

SERENA: I found Madame Manec’s death to be a catalyst because he had been in his own world up until that point.  She was a buffer between him and the rest of the world.  He really didn’t need to fight the Germans because not only had he done that before and come out scarred, but also because she was already doing something and he didn’t need to disrupt his world.

Once she’s gone, the buffer disappears and he’s left with Marie-Laure, a niece whom he has sworn to protect.  But even as he has promised to protect her, he knows that she was already involved in the resistance efforts and he feels the best way to protect her is to become involved as well.

I found it interesting that he was no longer having his headaches and shutting himself away to rid himself of ghosts.

ANNA: I think he’s finally faced his ghosts head on. He sees the ghost of Madame Manec and doesn’t have to shut himself away.  And it’s almost like Marie-Laure and Werner are haunted now by the memories of their youth, Marie-Laure by her father and Werner by Jutta and Frau Elena.

SERENA: Werner and Marie-Laure do seem haunted by the past, those they have lost.  I’m wondering what has happened to Marie’s father and Werner’s sister.  I want to know that they are safe, but I fear, at least for her father, they are not.

Etienne’s vision of Madame Manec seems like a foreshadowing of how his actions are providing a kindness to the city he has shunned for his darkened rooms.  He’s become their protector now, and I wonder what she’s trying to tell him, or really what he’s trying to tell himself when he sees her with those birds?

ANNA: It said it’s something like three years since the last time Marie-Laure has seen her father, and it seems like the letters dried up. He may not have had a way to send them, but I fear it’s worse that that. I, too, am curious about Jutta and the other children under Frau Elena’s care.

I am not sure what Madame Manec is saying, what symbolism is behind the sparrows. Maybe the tucking of the birds into her coat represents that all of the people he has lost are fine and protected wherever they are? Or that whatever happens to him now that his transmissions are flying out into the world that he will be okay in the end? I don’t know; I’m probably overthinking that.

SERENA: I think you’re right about Madame Manec, perhaps she is telling him that he’s doing the right thing and that everything will be ok.

What do you think is the significance of him playing music after transmitting the messages? Do you think that will be his downfall?

SERENA: The music….I think serves as part of Etienne’s resistance.  I think he wants to connect with the others, even though he doesn’t know who they are.  He wants them to feel the threads connecting them in this battle against the oppressors, but he also wants to demonstrate how he is no longer hiding and cowering in his room.  He’s awake, he’s active, and he’s fighting.  It also seems to be a symbol of hope and the light of the past — it enables him to transcend his troubles past and present.

ANNA: I agree with you about the music, and I think it’ll have a lot to do with his arrest. That’s probably where the connection to Werner comes in as well.

What did you think of Werner’s first encounter with Volkheimer? How do you think the murder of the little girl will affect Werner going forward?

ANNA: When Werner is reunited with Volkheimer it seems like he will be ok, that he has someone to watch over him, and Volkheimer does. But it also forces Werner to face the brutality of the war head on, as Volkheimer takes boots from prisoners and assassinates the partisans without a second thought, leaving Werner to witness the aftermath as he salvages the radio equipment.

SERENA: I found their reunion to be right in line with how they were together at the school; the big hulking Volkheimer watching over him and Werner not really seeking answers or questioning his methods.  Who knows how he protected Werner from the same fate as Frederick at the school.  I loved the scene in which Volkheimer displays a bit of tenderness toward Werner, offering him an additional blanket against the cold.

Their lack of communication with one another makes them endearing but Werner must know that they are not the same.  Werner is very scientific and he tries not to move into situations thinking about the consequences, whereas Volkheimer seems to know that there are certain realities of war that cannot be avoided.  When faced with the death of the young girl, Werner is forced to see the consequences of his clinical actions.  Again he will be forced to reassess.

ANNA: I think Werner’s work had been methodical up until that point, finding the partisans, gathering up the equipment, and moving. He was disturbed by the bodies but able to overlook them. In fact, he hadn’t ever seen them until Volkheimer had already killed them. But with the little girl, he witnessed her in life, her innocence, and it could have been his sister. Then he realizes he made a mistake about the transmission, and this time the consequences are more readily apparent. I wonder if this will make him retreat more into his memories of his sister and the children’s home.

What about that scene with von Rumpel in Marie-Laure and her father’s apartment? He was a bit obsessed and nutty.  Do you think his disease is getting the better of him or is it the obsession with the stone?

ANNA: I think von Rumpel’s obsession with the stone has only grown stronger given his illness and poor prognosis. I think his never-ending quest for the stone at this point is about his desire to survive, and the smashing of the model in their old apartment could be a foreshadowing of what is to come with he and Marie-Laure finally come face-to-face.

SERENA: I agree, that smashing of the house is definitely a foreshadowing of things to come.  I also think von Rumpel’s desperation to survive has fed his obsession with the stone.

Part Seven ends with the telegram about terrorist broadcasts in Saint-Malo. How do you think this will play out?

SERENA: That telegram is what I think brings Werner to Saint-Malo and how these stories converge.  I wonder how he and Marie-Laure will meet and whether he will see her as someone akin to his sister, Jutta.  Will Werner become an ally or will he follow his indoctrination where she’s concerned?  I have hope that he will use his past experiences, particularly that little girl’s death, to guide his future actions where Marie is concerned.

What are you looking forward to in the next sections?

ANNA: I wonder if Marie-Laure and Werner will actually meet, or will Werner merely result in the arrest of Etienne. I’d assume they would cross paths at some point though. Mainly I am just anticipating their paths crossing and the story falling into place. I really want to know whether they survive in the end, but I also am scared for that part to come.

SERENA: I hope they cross paths, but I’m not sure they will.  I think perhaps that Werner will play a roll in Etienne’s arrest.  I do want to see how this concludes and what happens, but I hope there is some closure on Jutta at least.  I think that Marie-Laure’s father’s fate is likely death in a camp, but maybe I’m too pessimistic.

I’m looking forward to the conclusion of this book.  I’m so glad that we picked it for a read-a-long.

ANNA: I agree about Marie-Laure’s father, and I’m glad we picked it, too.

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 31 for our discussion of Sections Eight and Nine.  Happy reading!

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Week 3: 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 third discussion of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.

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

What did you think about the section set during the bombing? I am more scared for Marie-Laure than ever with von Rumpel in her house!

SERENA: Von Rumpel seems to be dying and yet his utter determination to get this diamond is amazing and ridiculous at the same time.  As he’s inside the house, I fear that Marie-Laure will be his next victim, and that’s a fate I would wish on no one.  He’s a patient man and determined, but with time running out for him, he might rely on less psychological tactics to get what he wants.

ANNA:  The differences in views on the diamond between Marie-Laure’s father and von Rumpel are interesting. Her father wanted the diamond to be gone, and von Rumpel is seeking it out because of some crazy belief that it will save him. At the library, he was so patient and calculating, but now that he’s closing in, I am worried for Marie-Laure that he will resort to violence. I’m sure whatever happens between the two will indicate whether there is any truth to the legend. It’s an interesting aspect to the story, that’s for sure.

Do you think Werner is done for?  It seems that there is no way out.

ANNA:  Yes, I am afraid that it’s not looking good for Werner. If he manages to survive this, I hope it’s done in a realistic way and not something unbelievable and outlandish. I was thinking that Marie-Laure had a better chance of surviving than Werner, but now I’m not so sure that either will survive! I wonder if I’m going to need tissues to finish this book!

SERENA: I fear that there will be crying…ugly crying…  I don’t think Werner will survive, unless by some miracle he is trapped in there with the miracle-making diamond!

ANNA:  Oh, ugly crying for sure!

Do you think there’s any hope for Werner to continue under these circumstances without succumbing to the Nazi brainwashing? He seems to be fighting it, with Frederick and Jutta in mind, but there seems to be no escape for him.

SERENA: I agree there’s something in his make-up that is fighting the brainwashing, and it seems as though he might be able to fool others into thinking he’s on board with it all. I’m sure there will be someone who does not buy into his loyalty to the cause.  I think he’s finally begun to realize that the escape from being an orphan and coal miner’s son is more like a prison, and it’s likely to get more suffocating to him before it gets better.

ANNA: Werner has already seen how impossible his situation is. He asks to go home, and Hauptmann gets him sent to the front. Is he being sent to the technology division because Hauptmann thinks he’ll be useful, or is it in retaliation for a sign of weakness? The cold reception he got from Hauptmann makes me think it’s the latter.

How do you think his visit with Frederick will affect his outlook once he moves to his new position in Berlin?

ANNA:  I honestly have no idea how seeing Frederick again will affect him in the long run. It seems that he feels a lot of guilt about the fact that he didn’t stick up for Frederick when he was being bullied, but Werner was haunted by the future he would have had otherwise in the coal mines. Would that have been a better fate than what’s likely to happen to him now? Probably, as he would have at least kept his sense of self. I thought it was touching that Werner was looking for Frederick’s bird books. I wonder if Werner felt a sense of hopelessness because Frederick could have been so much more than how he ended up. That puts him in a similar situation; Werner’s self and thoughts are hardly his own anymore, and he’d had such high hopes for his future. I guess we’ll see what happens, whether it causes him to lose that bit of resistance or makes it stronger. What do you think?

SERENA: I think Werner will be empowered by Frederick’s fate.  I think he will learn from his mistake and make better choices.  I love that he’s seen first hand what happens to those who do not conform because it is sure to make him more careful in his choices, more diligent.  His resistance I think will be more hidden than say Madame Manec.

I love the idea of Madame Manec and the other women of Saint-Malo turning into unsuspecting resistance fighters. What do you think of Etienne’s reaction to Madame Manec’s fierce need to act against the German occupiers? Etienne seems to know things, as Madame Manec indicates, things that he wouldn’t know if all he did was hide in his room all day. Do you think Etienne is involved in the resistance as well?

SERENA:  I love that Manec is recruiting people in the village to resist, but I think she still views Etienne as weak and broken — a side that Marie-Laure clearly doesn’t see as much.  He seems to be using this perception of himself to observe the world around him and its changes — to take note of who is loyal to France and who is loyal only to greed as well as Germany.  The one lone transmitter that’s left seems like it could be part of the equation here.  Perhaps he is part of the resistance and that’s what he uses unbeknownst to anyone else.  It seems his reaction to Manec’s efforts is born out of fear of being discovered.  Do you think he is in the resistance?

ANNA:  I do think Etienne is part of the resistance. In the very first scenes of the book, when the bombing occurs, he seems to be a prisoner; I’m just wondering what for. He seems too knowledgeable about things to not have some sort of connection. The French flags are a huge clue where his loyalties lie, and though he burns them, the transmitter remains. If he were overly frightened, he would have given up the transmitter or destroyed it. Maybe he is just worried that Madame Manec and her crew will be careless in some way and lead the Germans to his door.

Why do you think Harold Bazin gave Marie-Laure the key to the hidden grotto?

SERENA: I think that grotto is a place for the resistance to meet, and I think he knew his number was up and that he’d be rounded up by the Germans.  It’s secret and a place that maybe they can move with the tides in and out without being detected.  It may even be a place for her to get help and hide from von Rumpel, etc.

ANNA:  I agree that I think he knew he was going to be arrested. I also think he is trying to protect Marie-Laure, since he specifically asked if she would be able to find it again. Whether he wants to protect her because of her blindness or her connections to the resistance, or both, I don’t know. It seems like it will factor into the story in some significant way at some point.

In this section, both Werner and Marie-Laure have lost people who are important to them. Werner no longer has any real contact with his sister, and Frederick no longer remembers him. Marie-Laure must now contend with the death of Madame Manec on top of the arrest of her father. How do you think these losses will affect them going forward? Do you think Marie-Laure will become part of the resistance?

SERENA:  I think these losses are devastating to them, but while they mourn them, they are going to be forced to deal with the realities of their situation.  Marie-Laure is a lot stronger than we think, and I would almost bet on her joining the resistance.  Seems like a sure thing to me.  Werner is going to be forced to determine how to handle these losses and his “need” to conform.  That’s going to be very tough, especially as the pressure on Germany inevitably heats up and the “superiority” of the regime cracks.

ANNA:  I agree about Marie-Laure. She has been strong since the beginning of the book and especially where the story fast-forwards. Werner’s inner conflicts are bound to increase, and it will be interesting to see how he handles them.

What are you hoping to see in the next sections?

ANNA: I hope to learn more about Etienne. Is he part of the resistance? I hope to see both Marie-Laure and Werner use their losses and trials in a positive way, despite the fact that things are likely only going to get worse for them. I’m curious about what will happen to Werner when he goes off to war, specifically how he finds himself in Saint-Malo. You?

SERENA:  I would love to see Etienne and Marie-Laure team up, even if it isn’t directly to help the resistance.  Wouldn’t it be comical if they were both helping and didn’t know that their mysterious information is coming from one another for a long while?  I would enjoy that.  Werner is off at war, but how does he get there? Does his internal resistance get him sent there or is it more like his mentor takes his ideas and pushes him out to take all the credit?  It’s definitely going to be interesting.

ANNA:  That would be humorous! I’m also interested in seeing how Marie-Laure’s and Werner’s stories converge. We probably won’t see that in the sections for next week, but I’m eagerly awaiting that.

SERENA: Me, too!

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 24 for our discussion of Sections 6 and 7.  Happy reading!

Week 2: 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 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!

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!

March Readalong Schedule: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

In March, Anna and I will begin the readalong for All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.  We hope that you will join us.

all-the-light-we-cannot-seeWINNER OF THE PULITZER PRIZE

From the highly acclaimed, multiple award-winning Anthony Doerr, the beautiful, stunningly ambitious instant New York Times bestseller about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.

Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. 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, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments, a talent that wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then a special assignment to track the resistance. More and more aware of the human cost of his intelligence, Werner travels through the heart of the war and, finally, into Saint-Malo, where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge.

Doerr’s “stunning sense of physical detail and gorgeous metaphors” (San Francisco Chronicle) are dazzling. Deftly interweaving the lives of Marie-Laure and Werner, he illuminates the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another. Ten years in the writing, a National Book Award finalist, All the Light We Cannot See is a magnificent, deeply moving novel from a writer “whose sentences never fail to thrill” (Los Angeles Times).

Here is the readalong schedule, with discussions here on each Friday.

  • Discussion of Sections Zero and One on Friday, March 3
  • Discussion of Sections Two and Three on Friday, March 10
  • Discussion of Sections Four and Five on Friday, March 17
  • Discussion of Sections Six and Seven on Friday, March 24
  • Discussion of Sections Eight and Nine on Friday, March 31
  • Discussion of Final Sections on Friday, April 7

We hope that you will join us next month!

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