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A Summer Reading Gone Sour

Why All the Light We Cannot See Isn’t as Great As People Say It Is

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Over the summer, this year’s freshmen class was given award-winning Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See to read at their own discretion. The number of them that actually finished it will have to be a topic for another day, but whether they wallpapered the margins with annotations or speed-read it in a panic the night before orientation, the end result was still the same: read, regurgitate, move on.

We all know the drill.

And yet… English teachers schoolwide have been praising Doerr’s virtues even to their upperclassmen; his gorgeous use of parallelism and prose is familiar fodder to even the most absentee of AP Lang students.

The thing is, most of us aged 16 and over never actually read the book. So, for the 74 percent of the school that didn’t peruse its contents over the summer, I propose a serious question: is it actually worth the read?

The basic gist of the plot itself is easy enough to get. Two protagonists, Marie-Laure LeBlanc and Werner Pfennig, each with their own separate struggles and their own separate problems. One in France, the other in Germany. Both thrown into the chaotic mix of fascism and imperialism that is World War II.

While Marie-Laure and her father are conscripted into hiding the Sea of Flames, an ancient jewel that just might be cursed to kill everyone around it, Werner is drafted into the Nazi forces against his will and assigned the mission of tracking down the origin of a resistance broadcast, a broadcast that happens to originate from Marie-Laure’s hiding place. You can see where this is going.

It’s a simple enough plot, as much as the nonlinear narrative may try to disguise it. But all that doesn’t really answer the original question. Is it worth the time to skip out on the chemistry homework and actually read it?

Well, your Language Arts teacher wasn’t wrong about one thing: Doerr’s mastery over the English language is exquisite in the finest sense of the word. His prose paints the Mona Lisa across the backs of a reader’s eyelids with every page — a Mona Lisa dripping with enough polysyndeton and anaphoras to make Vergil’s Aeneid go “huh, that might be a bit overkill.”

In fact, I’d go so far as to say Doerr’s prose might even be enough to mask the gaping holes in the character development. Well. It almost is anyways.

And here’s where you start to hit a snag in the “this book was really good” argument.

The main characters were bland. They were bland at their conception, and they continued to be bland as they sauntered past the publication desk. The concept behind their creation was great, I’ll admit: a blind girl in WWII France and a German orphan, both struggling through the Holocaust in their own way — it makes an extremely interesting case on the surface.

Except, “on the surface” is the deepest these two characters go. They feel less like characters and more like… placeholders.
Two blank slates, each with just enough dialogue and random twitches to convince the reader that they aren’t wooden marionettes controlled by a very bad ventriloquist — if only because wooden marionettes have more personality than both Werner Pfennig and Marie-Laure LeBlanc put together. They don’t have souls of their own, they don’t have personality — they’re just bundles of words, tossed together and made vacant enough that the reader can project 97 percent of their own personality traits onto them.
And that may sound harsh, I will admit. So in all honesty, the plot itself is sound. The themes are gratifying, the prose, as mentioned before, is masterfully used. It has all the good makings of a good, solid, impactful read.

But a story, at its most fundamental, most integral core, is centered around its characters, and these characters simply weren’t complex enough, distinct enough, real enough to make themselves compelling.

So if you’re a fan of parallelism and beautiful writing (or just a student with a quiz on rhetorical devices in the morning), then by all means: read Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See.

But if you read a book to transport yourself, to empathize with its characters and their struggles and their strifes — then this probably won’t be the book for you. It definitely wasn’t for me.

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