All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is a beautiful work of historical fiction. The following book club questions will have spoilers so if you haven’t read the novel yet, check out my preview and review first.
The story is about a blind French girl (Marie-Laure) and a German boy (Werner) whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II. It alternates between multiple perspectives but mainly we read it from their point of views.
Marie-Laure lives in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where her father works. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.
In a mining town in Germany, Werner Pfennig, an orphan, grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find that brings them news and stories from places they have never seen or imagined. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments and is enlisted to use his talent to track down the resistance.
Let’s get into the book club questions.
- What does the title All the Light We Cannot See mean in the context of the story?
- Why do you think the author chose to write the story in a nonlinear style and start with the bombing of Saint-Malo at the beginning?
- Let’s talk about the significance of the Sea of Flames jewel. Do you believe it did hold those “powers?” Or do you think it was supposed to represent something more about human nature? Did you believe that Marie-Laure and her father had the real jewel the entire time?
- On page 133, when Werner is about to leave to join the Hitler Youth, his sister Jutta is horrified and says: “Is it right…to do something only because everyone else is doing it?” And that’s when doubt slips into Werner’s mind. How did this sentence impact Werner and his decision making later in the book?
- Why was Marie-Laure’s father arrested in Paris? What were they trying to accuse him of? What do you think happened to him in the end?
- When Werner goes back home with Frederick, Werner still believes he’ll be able to be an engineer one day and Fredrick will also study birds. But on page 223, Frederick says to Werner, “Your problem, Werner is that you still believe you own your life.” Let’s talk about this statement and how it related to Werner.
- After Marie-Laure’s father’s been missing, Madame Manec takes Marie-Laure out to the ocean. How did this help bring a little joy back to her life? Let’s talk about how the ocean plays a larger role later in the novel.
- On page 270 when Madame Manec tries to get Marie-Laure’s great-Uncle Etienne to transmit codes, she says to him: “don’t you want to be alive before you die?” Let’s talk about what she meant by that and how it impacted Etienne after she passed.
- Etienne and Marie-Laure officially join the resistance when he uses the secret radio transmitter to transmit codes. Why do you think Etienne finally joined the resistance?
- Prior to France, Werner experiences the unimaginable in war. What did you think of those sections? When he gets to France, he’s in charge of finding Etienne’s radio broadcast but when he does, he realizes this is the person behind the French broadcast of his youth. So he says he doesn’t hear anything. Why do you think he made that choice? What changed in him?
- Before we get to the time timelines connecting, let’s first talk about Major von Rumpel. So it seems he believes the jewel will heal his cancer and will stop at nothing to get it. Do you think he made for a good antagonist to Marie-Laure’s protagonist?
- When Werner is first at the Hitler Youth camp, he meets Volkheimer who is a big, hulk-like figure but has a fondness for music. When it gets to the climax of the story and the bombing of Saint-Malo, Marie-Laure, out of desperation begins to play a record of Etienne’s music as loudly as possible in the hope that von Rumpel (who is in her house) will find her. Both Werner and Volkheimer are listening to the music. Why do you think the music drove Volkheimer to finally get them out of being trapped? How did the recording fill both Werner and Volkheimer with hope?
- Why do you think Werner was so determined to rescue Marie-Laure? How did he reclaim his humanity by doing so?
- Before Werner and Marie-Laure part so she can go somewhere safe, he tells her she’s brave. On page 469, she says, “When I lost my sight, Werner, people said I was brave. But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don’t you do the same?” He responds, “Not in years. But today. Today maybe I did.” Let’s talk about this moving exchange.
- Let’s discuss part eleven and the ending of the book. What did you think about what happened to each character?
- What are some of the key themes that stood out to you?
Other WWII historical fiction novels for your book club
If your book club is looking for more historical fiction reads set in WWII era, here are some suggestions! (Click the titles or photos to purchase from Amazon.)
The Lost Vintage by Ann Mah is a moving and rich story about family secrets and lost love set in the vineyards of Burgundy and it also features a storyline set in WWII. If you enjoy mysteries, historical fiction, wine, French culture with a love story mixed in, you’ll love this one. Check out my book club questions.
The Gown by Jennifer Robson is after WWII and it focuses on the aftermath. The story begins in London 1947 where the announcement of a royal wedding is a much welcomed distraction from a city still suffering post-war. Check out my book club questions here.
Transcription by Kate Atkinson is a British spy novel full of unexpected twists and turns. The story follows Juliet Armstrong, who was recruited when she was 18 to join the British Secret Service during WWII. There’s also a time jump to the 1950s when she’s working on educational radio programs for the BBC and her past comes back to the haunt her. Check out my book club questions here.
The Alice Network by Kate Quinn is an absorbing tale of two unlikely women brought together with a story full of intrigue, suspense and some heart, too. The story centers on two women—a female spy recruited to the real-life Alice Network in France during World War I and an unconventional American socialite searching for her cousin in 1947. So again, this is more of the aftermath of WWII as well as a focus on WWI. Check out my book club questions here.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a love letter to books. The story is about a London writer bonding with the colorful residents of Guernsey as she learns about the book club they formed during the WWII German occupation. Check out my book club questions here.