“The total entropy of any system, said Dr. Hauptmann, will decrease only if the entropy of another system will increase. Nature demands symmetry.”
In All the Light We Cannot See, the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Anthony Doerr, that symmetry is achieved by telling parallel stories of two main characters on opposite sides of World War II.
In Germany there is Werner Pfennig, an orphaned, tow-headed young man with a special gift for fixing and engineering radios at a time when communication is crucial. His only family is his younger sister, Jutta, who also acts as his conscience. Werner’s talent and Aryan looks get him noticed and he is recruited into a special school for the Hitler Youth.
In France there is Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a freckled, motherless blind girl. Her father, Daniel Le Blanc, is the locksmith at a local museum. His life is completely devoted to his daughter. He has built an elaborate model of the neighborhood so Marie-Laure can find her way. When they move in with his eccentric, agoraphobic Uncle Etienne, Daniel starts over and builds a model of the new location. He is determined that Marie-Laure be as independent as possible, a skill she will need later. Daniel has also been entrusted with a priceless item from the museum.
There are also a handful of important supporting characters: Frank von Rumpel, the determined German gemologist on an unstoppable quest; Madam Manec, Uncle Etienne’s servant who has become such a part of the family that the word servant hardly suffices; and Frederick, Werner’s first roommate at the new boys’ school, whose sensitive nature and morality chafes against the brutal methods being taught.
All throughout the book we, the reader, are ping-ponged back and forth between Werner’s and Marie-Laure’s lives, wondering when they will converge, as you know fate will orchestrate. Set aside all assumptions, however. All of my guesses were incorrect.
Time periods shift frequently. Sometimes they are clearly marked and other times not, the biggest complaint I’ve seen from other reviewers. I see no purpose in the added confusion, there are so many other details about which to keep track. My other complaint would be that the most intense climatic build ends in a very anti-climactic way. The proverbial balloon popping and hissing until empty.
But overall, All The Light We Cannot See is riveting. If you can picture in your mind an upside cone, that is how I felt as I read about Werner and Marie-Laure’s lives, waiting impatiently for them to intertwine. I flew through the 532 pages in about 3 days, staying up until after 1am last night to finish. As someone whose attention span has been greatly affected by the world’s goings-on, that was an achievement. The book was obviously meticulously researched. I’ve never read so much detail about the Hitler Youth. It made me cringe. War’s unfairness, loss, brutality, and waste is peppered throughout. Why some are allowed to live and others are not is a question that echoes into eternity.