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“All The Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr

There are certain books that are so moving that they are short visitors on library shelves, before being checked out again. They receive so much praise by word of mouth, book reviews, and prestigious awards that they continue to be just as popular years after their publication dates as when they were first released.

This is the case with “All The Light We Cannot See” by author Anthony Doerr. It was published in 2014, and in 2015 won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. When I saw the 10 or so copies from other libraries lined up waiting to be borrowed by book group members, I immediately noticed the worn, tired tops of the spines and the more-round-than-square spine edges from dozens of readers spending hours immersed with the book open.

“All The Light We Cannot See” is historical fiction that takes readers to Europe, with France being a central location in the plot, during World War II. In many ways this is a coming of age story with the two main characters being adolescents, trying to survive the war and come to terms with what it means to not just be alive, but to live.

Every character in the book faces hardships, which are often more heartbreaking than some of us have ever known personally. Their lives are ravished by war, and often there is never any hope.

As we are brought to German training camps for young soldiers and to the homes of those resisting war, we as readers face moral dilemmas throughout the story. We struggle with whether the characters are doing the right thing, and at times ask ourselves, “What would I do in that situation?”

Amid the turmoil and loss, this book is sprinkled with beautiful prose, color and numbers that make the pages come alive, and artifacts that you wish you could reach out and hold in your own hands. For me, I now wish to visit the ocean, close my eyes, and feel the cold, wet shells on my fingertips. I want to read Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. Finally, I want to bring my daughter to a Museum of Natural Science to experience the often-overlooked wonder of the world around us.

I am left with questions about this book, that I am not sure there are answers to. What does the color blue symbolize? It appears dozens of times, notably as the color of Fredrick’s bedroom, the color of the sea of flames, the sky and ocean, and the eyes of a main character. I’m also curious about the floor numbers that the author always makes a point of remarking on. Often our protagonist, Marie-Laure is stationed on the sixth floor. Important events take place in basements and attics. If you’ve read this book and have thoughts on these questions and general commentary, email me at librarian@townofbristolnh.org.

Thank you to Maria Schroeter, Adult Programming Librarian for Nesmith Library in Windham, New Hampshire, for this recommendation. Our Third Monday book group enjoyed having Maria join us for the discussion, and we look forward to having her back later this year for a discussion on “The Weight of Ink,” another title she recommended to our group.

Want more?

A great interview with author Anthony Doerr about this book can be found at: https://medium.com/@Powells/interview-with-anthony-doerr-author-of-all-the-light-we-cannot-see-3a3a501ccad2.

Below are recommendations of other books with similar themes from our Third Monday Book group.

“The Exiles” by Christina Baker Kline

Seduced by her employer’s son, Evangeline, a naïve young governess in early nineteenth-century London, is discharged when her pregnancy is discovered and sent to the notorious Newgate Prison. After months in the fetid, overcrowded jail, she learns she is sentenced to “the land beyond the seas,” Van Diemen’s Land, a penal colony in Australia. Though uncertain of what awaits, Evangeline knows one thing: the child she carries will be born on the months-long voyage to this distant land.

During the journey on a repurposed slave ship, the Medea, Evangeline strikes up a friendship with Hazel, a girl little older than her former pupils who was sentenced to seven years transport for stealing a silver spoon. Canny where Evangeline is guileless, Hazel — a skilled midwife and herbalist – is soon offering home remedies to both prisoners and sailors in return for a variety of favors.

Though Australia has been home to Aboriginal people for more than 50,000 years, the British government in the 1840s considers its fledgling colony uninhabited and unsettled, and views the natives as an unpleasant nuisance. By the time the Medea arrives, many of them have been forcibly relocated, their land seized by white colonists. One of these relocated people is Mathinna, the orphaned daughter of the Chief of the Lowreenne tribe, who has been adopted by the new governor of Van Diemen’s Land.

“The Nightingale” by Kristin Hannah

In the quiet village of Carriveau, Vianne Mauriac says good-bye to her husband, Antoine, as he heads for the Front. She doesn’t believe that the Nazis will invade France…but invade they do, in droves of marching soldiers, in caravans of trucks and tanks, in planes that fill the skies and drop bombs upon the innocent. When a German captain requisitions Vianne’s home, she and her daughter must live with the enemy or lose everything. Without food or money or hope, as danger escalates all around them, she is forced to make one impossible choice after another to keep her family alive.

Vianne’s sister, Isabelle, is a rebellious eighteen-year-old, searching for purpose with all the reckless passion of youth. While thousands of Parisians march into the unknown terrors of war, she meets Gaëtan, a partisan who believes the French can fight the Nazis from within France, and she falls in love as only the young can…completely. But when he betrays her, Isabelle joins the Resistance and never looks back, risking her life time and again to save others.

“The Alice Network” by Kate Quinn

1947. In the chaotic aftermath of World War II, American college girl Charlie St. Clair is pregnant, unmarried, and on the verge of being thrown out of her very proper family. She’s also nursing a desperate hope that her beloved cousin Rose, who disappeared in Nazi-occupied France during the war, might still be alive. So when Charlie’s parents banish her to Europe to have her “little problem” taken care of, Charlie breaks free and heads to London, determined to find out what happened to the cousin she loves like a sister.

1915. A year into the Great War, Eve Gardiner burns to join the fight against the Germans and unexpectedly gets her chance when she’s recruited to work as a spy. Sent into enemy-occupied France, she’s trained by the mesmerizing Lili, code name Alice, the “queen of spies”, who manages a vast network of secret agents right under the enemy’s nose.

Thirty years later, haunted by the betrayal that ultimately tore apart the Alice Network, Eve spends her days drunk and secluded in her crumbling London house. Until a young American barges in uttering a name Eve hasn’t heard in decades, and launches them both on a mission to find the truth…no matter where it leads.

“A Woman of No Importance: The untold story of the American spy who helped win World War II” by Sonia Purnell

In 1942, the Gestapo sent out an urgent transmission: “She is the most dangerous of all Allied spies. We must find and destroy her.”

This spy was Virginia Hall, a young American woman–rejected from the foreign service because of her gender and her prosthetic leg–who talked her way into the spy organization deemed Churchill’s “ministry of ungentlemanly warfare,” and, before the United States had even entered the war, became the first woman to deploy to occupied France.

Virginia Hall was one of the greatest spies in American history, yet her story remains untold. Just as she did in Clementine, Sonia Purnell uncovers the captivating story of a powerful, influential, yet shockingly overlooked heroine of the Second World War. At a time when sending female secret agents into enemy territory was still strictly forbidden, Virginia Hall came to be known as the “Madonna of the Resistance,” coordinating a network of spies to blow up bridges, report on German troop movements, arrange equipment drops for Resistance agents, and recruit and train guerilla fighters. Even as her face covered WANTED posters throughout Europe, Virginia refused order after order to evacuate. She finally escaped with her life in a grueling hike over the Pyrenees into Spain, her cover blown, and her associates all imprisoned or executed. But, adamant that she had “more lives to save,” she dove back in as soon as she could, organizing forces to sabotage enemy lines and back up Allied forces landing on Normandy beaches. Told with Purnell’s signature insight and novelistic flare, A Woman of No Importance is the breathtaking story of how one woman’s fierce persistence helped win the war.

Up next: “Fight Club” by Chuck Palahniuk

This book was recommended to me by a colleague in Bristol. It has been on my to-read list for years. My husband and I just so happened to have a paperback copy on a bookshelf at home.

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