Book Club Guide—All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

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Since its publication in 2014, along with its Pulitzer Prize win the following year, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr continues to be one of the most popular picks for book clubs everywhere. It delivers a fresh approach to the subject of World War II by focusing on the perspectives of two children on opposite sides of the fray. And the novel is so rich with detail and allusions that your club could talk for hours. Creative hosts could take a club meeting in many directions: Serve peaches, German food, an assortment of French pastries, and baguettes with various dips and spreads. Play real WWII radio clips during the meeting (the BBC website has archived British news reports and more). Even write codes and notes on slips of paper and stash them inside unbaked rolls. Below is a Book Club Guide to direct your discussion.

Blindness and sight:

When is Marie-Laure at the biggest disadvantage because of her blindness? Does her blindness ever prove an advantage to her?

Discuss the following quote: “To shut your eyes is to guess nothing of blindness. Beneath your world of skies and faces and buildings exists a rawer and older world, a place where surface planes disintegrate and sounds ribbon in shoals through the air.”

What exactly is “all the light we cannot see”?

The Natural World:

The natural world has a constant presence in this novel: Marie-Laure’s experience at the museum of natural history; her fascination with snails; Frederick’s obsession with birds. Why is nature such an important backdrop to the war throughout?

What does the grotto represent to Marie-Laure? Why does she return there again and again?

Does the stone at the center of this book, the Sea of Flames, have any real magical power? Does it protect Marie-Laure? Does it bring bad luck to those around her? Or is it all superstition?

The Radio:

The role of the radio is complex in this book, since it serves as both a connector of people and a weapon of war. How do the radio broadcasts connect people over both space and time in the novel?

What is Werner’s relationship with radios, and does it change over the course of the book?

The War:

Discuss Werner’s conflicted attitude toward the war. Why is he eager to join the war effort at the beginning? When and why does his attitude toward the war change?

Why is Von Rumpel given such a major role in the novel? Why do chapters keep returning to him, and why are we given his point-of-view, rather than just seeing him through the perspective of Marie-Laure?

Madame Manec tells a riddle about dropping a frog in a pot of boiling water versus dropping it in cool water and bringing it slowly to a boil. How is this like the characters’ actions in the novel, and how is it a way of thinking about the war?

Survival and Self-protection:

Marie-Laure spends much of the novel hiding in an attic, while Werner finds himself buried in a basement. How does each character react to these different ways of being trapped? How do they manage to find a means of escape?

Which character did you most identify with, and whose role/outlook would you be most likely to adopt in a similar situation? Her papa? Etienne? Madame Manec? Werner? Jutta? Von Rumpel?