Forums Club Ed Book Club All the Light We Cannot See discussion

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    • #78761
      Jennifer Lawler
      Keymaster

      OKAY! Who’s here for the LIGHT discussion?

    • #78762
      Kendra Olson
      Participant

      I’m here, but haven’t finished reading the book.

    • #78763
      Jake Nicholls
      Participant

      Hello! I’m here and ready to discuss 🙂

      • #78812
        Nancy Disenhaus
        Participant

        One question while we’re waiting to roll: I seem to remember finding the narrative chronology and identification of characters confusing. Have you noticed similar issues? Kendra, being in the middle of the book gives you a perspective on this I’d love to hear, as once a reader finishes, more clarity has likely developed. And Jake, as you’ve recently finished the book (?), I wonder whether you noticed any similar confusions but now find they were well designed and well resolved?

    • #78764
      Nancy Disenhaus
      Participant

      Hi from Nancy in Vermont. It’s been a couple of years since I read the book, so I will just sit back and take in what you more recent readers observe. If this is freeloading, I’ll try to do better next month!

    • #78777
      Jennifer Lawler
      Keymaster

      Oops, sorry, got lost down a rabbit hole. I am sorry to say I didn’t finish either, but my excuse is a very bad head cold rendering it impossible for me to concentrate.

      Which explains how I just got lost down a rabbit hole.

      So, overall impressions? Did we like this one better than CRAWDADS?

      • #78778
        Jake Nicholls
        Participant

        I thought that overall, it was much better written than ‘Crawdads’ but I still found it to be a bit of a slog to get through! My main issue with it was the lack of character development, so I found it hard to stay engaged.

    • #78779
      Jennifer Lawler
      Keymaster

      Yes, I found it a bit of a slog myself; I can’t blame not finishing entirely on the head cold. It struck me as a story that was trying to be epic in scale but didn’t need to be.

    • #78780
      Kendra Olson
      Participant

      I’m enjoying it actually, though it was a bit slow to start.

    • #78781
      Kendra Olson
      Participant

      It does seem overly long.

    • #78782
      Jennifer Lawler
      Keymaster

      I feel like a lot is happening around the characters but not with them. Is that just me?

      • #78785
        Jake Nicholls
        Participant

        No, I totally agree – the characters are passive pretty much the whole way through, which is why (I think) the character development is so poor. None of them ever make any meaningful decisions!

    • #78783
      Jake Nicholls
      Participant

      I don’t want to spoil anything for those of you intending to carry on reading, but on the subject of the book’s length – I detested the last chunk of it, which jumps forward in time to the 70s and then to 2014… I thought it was more than a little self-indulgent and the themes were being bashed over the reader’s head less than subtly.

      • #78788
        Jennifer Lawler
        Keymaster

        I think jumping around in timeline is always potentially problematic and I don’t know why authors love doing it so much. I mean, I can see playing around a little, such as opening with a dramatic moment and then going back to what brought the characters to that dramatic moment–sure, curiosity can keep readers turning pages–but much of the time it strikes me as being less about serving the story and more about indulging the author.

      • #78805
        Kendra Olson
        Participant

        I felt like this also decreased tension in the story. For example, we see Marie-Laure alone in the house in Saint-Malos, knowing someone has come inside and then a bunch of other stuff happens and time moves around. I think he intended for this to be suspenseful, but I just found it confusing. If instead he’d actually moved forward at that point, the story would have been more compelling.

      • #78807
        Jake Nicholls
        Participant

        Yes – it bothered me in this book, especially as the timelines got closer and closer together, so towards the end the time jumps were back and forth from 1944 to 1945. It deflated any possible tension rather than building it up.

    • #78784
      Kendra Olson
      Participant

      It took me awhile to settle into the POV.

      • #78789
        Jennifer Lawler
        Keymaster

        Kendra, did you find the brief chapters part of the problem?

      • #78803
        Kendra Olson
        Participant

        Yes, every time I’d start to settle with one character and place, the author would switch them.

      • #78806
        Jennifer Lawler
        Keymaster

        Yes, it felt like a version of head-hopping, getting yanked back and forth. It’s hard to invest in a character when you only get to read about her for two pages at a time.

      • #78811
        Kendra Olson
        Participant

        I agree. It’s like the author was more concerned about making sure readers understood the bigger picture than that they were emotionally invested in the characters.

    • #78786
      Jennifer Lawler
      Keymaster

      Don’t worry about spoilers, Jake; we’re here to discuss all the warts, even the ones some of us haven’t gotten to yet.

    • #78802
      Kendra Olson
      Participant

      Jake, thank you for that! I think I’ll stop reading when I get to that point. I too think the author is heavy handed with the themes.

      Jennifer, I agree that a lot seems to be happening around the characters but not with them. I think this is why it took me so long to settle in with it. It almost feels like it’s meant to be a film. Every time I think Werner or Marie-Laure is going to be active, they’re not.

      • #78808
        Jennifer Lawler
        Keymaster

        Yes, there was a curiously passive feel to some of it. I don’t expect characters in literary fiction to be particularly heroic or active about their fates but I also felt a little like the important things were falling through the cracks or happening off the page.

    • #78804
      Jake Nicholls
      Participant

      I have a test that I use to see whether characters are under-developed: I try to describe them without referring to either their physical appearance or their job title. If I can’t think of anything, it’s a pretty sure sign that something is missing. That’s what happened with the characters in ‘Light’ – I can’t think of any words to describe their personalities at all. I’d be interested to see if anyone picked up on any character traits that might have gone over my head, though.

      • #78809
        Kendra Olson
        Participant

        I like it! Hmm…they are pretty shallow, aren’t they? Werner seems to be the disadvantaged youth and Marie-Laure seems to be simply the blind girl who likes to read and is very attached to her father. I kept expecting there to be more. Maybe it’s because I haven’t actually finished reading it that I’m more forgiving? I kept thinking the author would somehow pleasantly surprise me!

      • #78810
        Jennifer Lawler
        Keymaster

        Jake, I often find that authors who are focused on theme often have the problem of under-developed characters (great test, by the way). It’s as if the theme is driving the plot events and therefore the characters are just moved around like chess pieces. It’s a version of what happens in genre fiction when the plot forces the characters around versus the characters’ goals and actions driving what happens.

      • #78814
        Kendra Olson
        Participant

        That’s a really helpful way of thinking about it. I’ll remember that!

      • #78816
        Jake Nicholls
        Participant

        Jennifer – yes, I think that’s a big part of it. I can understand wanting to portray war and the rise of fascism as something that people get swept up in and can do nothing to stop, but I also wonder whether part of the reason for Werner’s passiveness, at least, was that the author didn’t want to make him seem in any way complicit in the actions of the Nazis? So he just drifted along with things, for the most part.

      • #78820
        Jennifer Lawler
        Keymaster

        Jake, yes, agreed. Think about what could be done in terms of character arc if the author had been willing to take some risks! I mean, why not let him be a Nazi who gradually wakes up to reality? Or have him set himself against the Nazis; there were certainly Germans who did. Or . . . .

      • #78838
        Kendra Olson
        Participant

        I agree. I think it’s another aspect of the author prioritizing making his point over the characters.

      • #78813
        Jennifer Lawler
        Keymaster

        I also think writers can mistake “what they did” for “who they are” in character development, possibly because we often say “show who the character is through dialogue and action versus telling us who they are” but there is a method to showing that isn’t just about, uh, showing.

      • #78819
        Kendra Olson
        Participant

        Interesting point. I’ve come up against this problem in edits and critiques, but often have trouble formulating what it is when I’m trying to work through it. This is where telling a story from a more distant POV doesn’t seem quite as effective to me. If, instead, readers were to see how the characters’ actions differ from their internal voice (whether that’s portrayed in first person or close third) then readers could understand how what they do differs from who they are. The author seems to try to do this with Werner, but he doesn’t really pull it off (it’s unclear what Werner really thinks for awhile).

      • #78835
        Jennifer Lawler
        Keymaster

        Kendra, right. An author can’t leave all the work of interpretation up to the reader. As you say, in close third this is easier because internal thoughts can be used to contrast with or explain external behavior. But even in a more objective/detached narration, such contrast can be used:

        “Oh, it’s not a big deal, I haven’t even bought the tickets yet,” Tamara said, shoving them deeper into her purse.

        And while writers are taught to distrust exposition, exposition has its uses!

      • #78840
        Kendra Olson
        Participant

        I agree. Good point.

    • #78815
      Jennifer Lawler
      Keymaster

      The jewel subplot is also reminding me a little of the murder subplot in CRAWDADS. Like we have to throw something in there to create a sense of thrill. As if surviving (or not) a major world war doesn’t have enough thrills.

      • #78817
        Jake Nicholls
        Participant

        Hmm, the jewel thing was very odd. And it doesn’t really conclude, either – at least not in a satisfying way (although I’m not sure what a satisfying conclusion to that subplot would be).

      • #78818
        Jennifer Lawler
        Keymaster

        Yeah, I’m just not sure what I’m supposed to think about a cursed pearl in the middle of a freakin’ world war. And, as you say, it’s hard to know what outcome I’d want. I mean, why not let the mean Nazi have it and bring misery to everyone around him?

      • #78821
        Jake Nicholls
        Participant

        Oh, that reminds me – the most plot-impacting action that Werner does is (spoiler) to shoot von Rumpel as he is closing in on Marie-Laure and the jewel. And yet, it happens off-page!

      • #78837
        Jennifer Lawler
        Keymaster

        Jake, yes, that’s what I was feeling about other important story events–they happen off-page! WHY?!

      • #78834
        Kendra Olson
        Participant

        I thought this subplot worked against Marie-Laure’s narrative. When I realized she actually had it and was carrying it around with her, I stopped empathizing as much with her and her father (he seems to care more about the jewel than his own daughter).

      • #78883
        Mary Lanham
        Participant

        Yeah, I definitely found myself thinking JUST GIVE THE NAZIS THE CURSED DIAMOND. It’s not like he was going to build a laser weapon out of it (that’s the sci fi version of the story, I guess).

    • #78839
      Jennifer Lawler
      Keymaster

      And is it really that “all the light we cannot see” is radio waves? Or am I just too cranky to appreciate some subtle reference to some other phenomenon?

      • #78842
        Jake Nicholls
        Participant

        Yep, I think that’s pretty much it! In my copy of the book, there’s an author interview at the end where he says that the title was the first thing he came up with, before the plot or characters or anything. He was inspired by a man on the train who got angry that his phone signal cut off, and he wanted to write something that would help the reader to recognise the magic of technology again (or something).

      • #78843
        Jake Nicholls
        Participant

        (This comes across very strongly in the 2014 chapter, where Marie-Laure’s grandson is playing on his smartphone…)

      • #78844
        Jennifer Lawler
        Keymaster

        Oh brother. I was really hoping it was something beautiful and profound. I mean, I like my smartphone and also I like my radio, and I am certainly glad that technology brings me A/C in the summer. But.

      • #78846
        Kendra Olson
        Participant

        I think I’ll just stop reading now.

      • #78847
        Jennifer Lawler
        Keymaster

        LOL, Kendra. Thanks for taking a hit for the team, Jake.

      • #78849
        Jake Nicholls
        Participant

        Haha! No problem, glad to save you both the extra trouble 😉

    • #78841
      Jennifer Lawler
      Keymaster

      Overall I think the author is very simplistic about the story world, and this is probably one of the reasons the characterization suffers. Germans are bad, French people are good, except for the collaborators. What about nuance? What about the people who got their heads chopped off for defying the Third Reich? What about ordinary people who didn’t support the Third Reich but didn’t want their heads chopped off? What about . . . .

      • #78845
        Kendra Olson
        Participant

        Good point! Yes, his black and white story world is annoying, to say the least.

      • #78867
        Mary Lanham
        Participant

        [This is my first attempt to nest a reply, hope it ends up where I want it…]

        Yes, I found myself wishing the book had been about Jutta and Werner *after* the war, trying to repair their relationship and deal with the respective decisions they made. I wanted to know how she fared as someone who instinctively wanted to resist the Reich… did she do so in any way? How did she survive, and how would she have felt about Werner after the war?

      • #78869
        Jake Nicholls
        Participant

        That would have been really interesting to see! I felt like Jutta was conveniently dropped from the plot and from Werner’s thoughts once he left Schulpforta. Again, from what we’re told in the last chapters, she seemed to simply drift along as a passive character – which doesn’t match how her character was set up in the beginning (listening to illegal radio stations, speaking out against the regime etc.).

    • #78848
      Jennifer Lawler
      Keymaster

      I have to run out for an appointment but will check back for follow-up comments when I return.

      I was thinking Ann Patchett’s STATE OF WONDER for next time, unless either of you has one you’d like to recommend instead? Nancy, if you’re still lurking and want to recommend something, feel free!

      • #78850
        Jake Nicholls
        Participant

        I’ve never read any Ann Patchett before, so that sounds good to me!

    • #78851
      Jennifer Lawler
      Keymaster

      Let’s do it, then! April 1, according to my calendar.

      • #78866
        Jake Nicholls
        Participant

        Excellent! Thanks for another great discussion – it made struggling through the book worth it. Now that I’ve vented a bit, I can already feel the details of the book fading from my mind as I type…

    • #78852
      Kendra Olson
      Participant

      I might not be able to make the next discussion as I’ll be away the first week of April.

    • #78853
      Mary Lanham
      Participant

      Jumping in a little late here… this is my first forum post, so hello to those I haven’t virtually met yet! I’m currently one of Jennifer’s students in a class trough the Editorial Freelancers Association.

      I’m relieved to see these posts, because I have to say, I was pretty shocked this book won a Pulitzer (I think it was the Pulitzer?). The prose is gorgeous, but the narrative itself feels like a mashup of Symbolic Wartime Tropes, right down to the heavy-handed nod to Schindler’s List that comes toward the end of the book. I loved the first third, but then nothing about the narrative ever evolved in an unexpected or interesting way.

      When I have this reaction to a much-lauded book, it makes me wonder if I just don’t know as much about stories as I’d like to believe. Does this happen to other people here as well?

      • #78868
        Jake Nicholls
        Participant

        Hi Mary! Are you doing the Advanced Dev Ed course? (If so – me, too!) 🙂

        I forgot ‘Light’ won the Pulitzer! That is pretty shocking, especially when you compare it to something else that won, like Donna Tartt’s ‘The Goldfinch’ – there’s just no comparison!

        I’ve become much more cynical over time about award winners and ‘critically acclaimed’ books. It seems to me that there’s certain authors who, once they’ve been categorised as ‘literary’, will always be put on a pedestal, no matter the quality of their work.

      • #78870
        Mary Lanham
        Participant

        Yes, I’m in that course, just procrastinating about making my intro post. Hello!

        I hear you about the cynicism. I do think literary writers are judged much more by their prose skills than by whether they can actually write a novel. Which makes sense, but only up to a point. An awful lot of literary novels feel like 300+ page short stories in terms of the narrative development and payoff. ‘Light’ really falls into that category for me; it felt like 500 pages of beautiful, increasingly frustrating vignette. (But genre novels have their stereotypical problems too, of course…)

      • #78884
        Jennifer Lawler
        Keymaster

        Mary, such a good point. I think the literati have a tendency to think prose is all but I’m pedestrian enough to want story in a novel.

        I also think a lot of short story writers (isn’t that what Anthony Doerr basically is?) believe that a novel is the next step in their career and seem to conceive of the novel as just a really long short story, or a collection of short stories, whereas in reality short stories have more in common with poetry than with novels.

        Which isn’t to say that I can’t have great fun with a novelist who is playing with the idea of the novel, but seeing as how Laurence Sterne started playing with what a novel is three hundred years ago, there isn’t a lot of new under the sun.

      • #78898
        Jake Nicholls
        Participant

        That’s a very good point. I guess this book proves that prose is the icing, not the cake itself… and you can quickly get sick of too much icing if it’s not balanced out by a nice bit of sponge (by which I mean solid characters/plot/etc.)!

      • #78911
        Jennifer Lawler
        Keymaster

        Jake, I often think of Dan Brown. His prose is terrible but the story in The Da Vinci Code is actually pretty interesting and I read the whole thing in one sitting. I can forgive clunky prose more than poor storytelling!

    • #78897
      Jennifer Lawler
      Keymaster

      Mary, what was your overall reaction? If an author of lit fiction is playing with tropes or with what a novel is (like Italo Cavino’s If On a Winter’s Night), I can be engaged without also needing a story, but I find it so hard to slog through a novel like Light when I feel that ultimately there’s no story there.

      • #78912
        Mary Lanham
        Participant

        I felt very much the same way. The structure of Light isn’t actually experimental, and for me it got in the way of the story that could have been there. It allowed Doerr to get away with never digging into the characters and instead indulging in lots of poignant, quick scenes. The result was that I felt kind of emotionally manipulated but still distant from the story.

        But for the first 150 pages or so, when I still thought the story would start to go deeper, I really enjoyed the read. I wonder what the book would have been like as interconnected short stories instead, since he’s primarily a short fiction writer…

    • #78974
      Adrienne Pond
      Participant

      Wednesdays are my LONG days and so I’ll never be able to meet with you all on time. Thank you all for articulating a lot of what has been going through my head about this book. I was initially hooked by the lovely prose and rhythm of his individual sentences and I still am in awe of some of his constructions, but I agree with so much of what you all pointed out.
      My biggest takeaway questions are:
      Why would an experienced writer (or anyone for that matter) believe that the time jumps between such short chapters would work for story and for readers? I can see that sort of thing happening in initial drafts that were pulled together before publication, but to make it all the way to print surprises me.
      What kind of editor doesn’t point all this out? OR is it that the publisher was too in love with the prose to notice anything else and squashed a good editor’s contributions? OR is it that an experienced, previously published author has so much sway in the editing/publishing processes that he/she can override anything a solid editor queries?

      • #79278
        Mary Lanham
        Participant

        I wonder if the jumps in time were an attempt to give the story forward momentum in the absence of a compelling plot. We keep jumping in and out of the only plot point with any suspense or narrative drive: the days of the firebombing. It felt like the use of present tense might have had the same goal, to create a sense of immediacy and waiting for the big thrilling denouement… except then there basically isn’t one (sad trombone).

    • #79263
      Jennifer Lawler
      Keymaster

      I think being a short fiction writer is not the advantage in writing a novel that a lot of people seem to think it is! You can get away with being a terrific prose stylist in short fiction even if you don’t have a solid grasp of storytelling, but not in a novel.

      This is not to discount the difficulty and beauty of writing evocative language. Often what we remember about a story is not what happened but what we felt about what happened, and often that is tied to the way the moment is written about. And even just a well-phrased image will stay with us and affect us. That’s very powerful.

      So, for a lot of people, that is enough. That’s how books like this get readers and win awards. Publishing has kind of a herd mentality, too, and it’s safe(r) to like what other people like. And of course this means that the same kinds of narratives by the same kinds of people are rewarded again and again, when more exceptional work gets little attention.

      The quality of editing varies widely in publishing, but the bigger the deal, the less likely any editing of significance will be done. Think of the last Harry Potter installment. If ever a book cried out for a fearless DE, that was one! But who would stand up to JK Rowling and say, “Are you freakin’ kidding me? Harry Potter spends nine months and a hundred thousand words wandering around in the woods?”

      And of course ultimately it’s up to the author to decide what edits to accept and reject. Publishers can cancel books that haven’t been revised to their expectations but that’s very rare and is almost never going to happen on a novel that has any significant advance, publicity, etc. riding on it.

    • #79277
      Adrienne Pond
      Participant

      Yes, that all makes perfect sense. Thank you, Jennifer.

    • #79723
      Kendra Olson
      Participant

      Thanks, Jennifer, for sharing your insights into how books like this get published. And thanks, everyone, for another fascinating and educational discussion. I learn so much from these book club meetings and they’re very enjoyable to participate in too (even when I don’t like the book we’re reading!).

      • This reply was modified 6 months, 3 weeks ago by Kendra Olson.
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