Courtesy of Mr. AMB:
Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See is a bestseller and a Pulitzer Prize-winner, so it hardly needs praise. I generally liked it, but I have four critical observations.
First, Doerr played a trick with the structure of the book. To keep the reader from being bored, the book relies upon short chapters which jump back and forth from the climax and the true chronology. The trick worked and kept the book interesting, but it’s still a trick, and after a while it felt a bit mechanical and manipulative. (Amusingly, the last time I saw that trick used was the movie Deadpool, which I thought did a better job with it. I doubt the Pulitzer Committee would appreciate the comparison.)
Second, as The Morning News and The New Republic noted, the book reeks of “twee.” (“Twee” is defined as “excessively or affectedly quaint, pretty, or sentimental.” For more on the rise of the twee aesthetic, see this Atlantic article.) Unlike Dominic Green at The New Republic, however, I didn’t think that this “turn[ed] the Holocaust into a sentimental mess.” I thought it was charming. It’s possible to discuss serious subjects — and even unspeakable horrors — in a sentimental way, as Roberto Benigni proved with Life is Beautiful. I similarly didn’t see, like Green did, All The Light We Cannot See drawing any sort of equivalence between the Nazis and the Allies in World War II.
Third, I didn’t mind the twee until Doerr killed it. The last fifth of the book should have been omitted. Gone With The Wind ends with a beautiful cliffhanger, leaving the eventual outcome to the reader’s imagination. All The Light We Cannot See ends with a prolonged bummer. If you’re going to spin me a fairy tale, don’t unwind it as life takes its toll on the characters.
Fourth, while reading the book, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the it was meant for teenagers.* Indeed, the overall tone of the book is highly similar to The Fault In Our Stars, i.e., a mixture of teenage twee and tragedy. That doesn’t bother me; what bothers me is the completely different reception the two books received. All The Light We Cannot See won the Pulitzer Prize and the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, whereas The Fault In Our Stars won a bunch of awards with “children” and “youth” in their title. Having read both, I don’t see any real difference in the maturity of the themes, the depth of the characters, the complexity of the plot, the sophistication of the prose, or any of the supposed markers of “adult” or “serious” fiction.
Anyone who loved All The Light We Cannot See but thumbs their nose at adults who read books labeled for a younger audience is a hypocrite.
*Hence the title of this post. Mr. AMB referred to Doerr’s book as “All The Light We Cannot See Because Of The Fault In Our Stars” in conversations with me. Now, I can’t separate the two books in my mind.