Hoo boy, can this guy write. He breezes right past one of my main complaints about historical fiction, which is that too often the author ploddingly details every bit of research he did to make sure the reader knows it all too, when in fact the reader often doesn't need all that much detail. In All the Light We Cannot See, Doerr tells the story of two adolescents during the run-up to WWII. Marie-Laure is a blind French girl who lives with her father, a museum worker, in Paris. Werner is an orphan who lives, along with his sister, in a small children's home in Germany until his prodigy-level skills in repairing radios attracts the attention of the up-and-coming Nazi party, which selects him for their elite Nazi Youth movement.
Eventually Marie-Laure's and Werner's paths will cross. This book is about the journey to that crossing, and it's beautiful. Marie-Laure's father, in an effort to help his blind daughter, creates a model version of their neighborhood, then teaches her how to find her way around it. When the German invasion forces them out of Paris, they flee to an elderly uncle's home in Saint Malo, a walled citadel by the sea, and the father once again creates a model. But this time, it's not just for Marie-Laure's benefit: the father has been trusted with an item of potentially great value from the museum, something the Nazis want.
Doerr takes a really interesting approach to time in this book. Each section starts with what becomes the pivotal days in 1944 when the two finally meet. But from there, he goes back in time, showing how Marie-Laure and Werner each ended up in Saint Malo. Most of the chapters are very short, just a page or two, which only increases the tension and urgency. It's a tricky structure that could easily have failed, but for me, it worked.
Along the way, Doerr brings in other characters, and although most are secondary, he fleshes them out enough to make the reader care, especially about Werner's little sister Jutta, his friend Frederick from Nazi Youth, and Marie-Laure's great-uncle Etienne.
He's also a doozy of a writer, with lush descriptive sentences that make the scenes sharply visible.
The one complaint I have comes at the end. After staying laser-focused in the pre-WWII and WWII timeframe, Doerr chooses to follow up with scenes in 1974 and 2014, kind of in a "Where are they now?" storyline. Here he uses a plot device that, for the first time in the book, feels strained and contrived. I wish he had ended back in 1944. But that still didn't make me dislike the book overall.