Book review: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

9780008138301Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. 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, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments, a talent that wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then a special assignment to track the resistance. More and more aware of the human cost of his intelligence, Werner travels through the heart of the war and, finally, into Saint-Malo, where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge.

Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See is a masterpiece of great beauty, a true literary tour-de-force that sweeps the reader away and doesn’t let go, and as you rush through the pages some of the most persistent thoughts in your head are – I do not want this to end. I’ve recommended All the Light We Cannot See to my mother, grandmother and to my boss well, to almost anyone whom I’ve met since I finished it and who has the slightest interest in the written word. Doerr’s book is a stupendous and enchanting masterpiece that pulls you right in.

The power of Doerr’s writing is not in the ensemble of the sentences  as such, All the Light We Cannot See isn’t a novel that sounds like music as you read it, but rather in their descriptiveness – Doerr’s style is both sensory and very vivid. Each sentence plays a role in character development, each evokes a vivid image that comes together like a bright and beautiful film in your head.  Speaking of films…  All the Light We Cannot See is a book that I would truly love to see adapted, but at the same time, it would be an adaptation that I would certainly be hesitant to see, because as cinematic as the book may be it would be an extraordinarily difficult task to transfer Werner and Marie-Laure’s story to the big screen.

Writing about the 1940s in Europe, especially depicting German victims of the war machine as human is an immensely difficult task, one that, bizarrely, wasn’t at all understood by some of the Russian reviews I’ve read while deliberating whether I should get  the book in the first place… One of the references of the title, aside from the obvious miracles of the radio and voices traveling across the lands, unseen yet full of wonder and promise… The other is, at last in my point of view, much more important, as Doerr notes on his website, All the Light We Cannot See refers to the hidden stories of World War II, stories of children and a suggestion that “we spend too much time focused on only a small slice of the spectrum of possibility.” All the Light We Cannot See is a story about an extraordinary French girl and a gifted German boy who got caught up in the events of the second World War. It isn’t a simple love story or a historical adventure, it is a novel that of a blind girl and a brilliant orphan boy, the way they grow to understand the world and the way their fates would collide on the eve of the landing of British-American forces to France.

Vickander Redmayne Vogue photoshoot

Review: The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff

 It starts with a question, a simple favour asked by a wife of her husband while both are painting in their studio, setting off a transformation neither can anticipate. Uniting fact and fiction into an original romantic vision, The Danish Girl eloquently portrays the unique intimacy that defines every marriage and the remarkable story of Lili Elbe, a pioneer in transgender history, and the woman torn between loyalty to her marriage and her own ambitions and desires.

Over the last few years, the film industry has become an almost inexhaustible source of reading inspiration. I have first looked up the story of Lili Elbe, while reading the rave articles about the stunning transformation of Eddie Redmayne, who started filming The Danish Girl shortly after scooping all possible awards for the role of Stewen Hawking.

David Ebershoff’s novel tells the story of Danish painter Einar Weneger and his American wife Greta, also a painter. Weneger became the first recipient of gender reassignment surgery after standing in as one of his wife’s models and gradually discovering his true feminine identity as Lili Elbe. Lili Elbe became a transgender pioneer, the story of her marriage is as unconventional and provocative as one may be. But the fact is, David Ebershoff’s novel bears only a slight resemblance to the truth, and had I know the extent of historical inaccuracies I would most likely have avoided reading it altogether.

Literature, and art in general, should allow space for artistic interpretation. However, when it comes to remarkable people who’ve lived remarkable lives, overt disregard to historical fact, especially when it comes to all but one character of the novel, is a sacrilege. In his acknowledgments, the author of The Danish Girl does state that the novel is only loosely based on Weneger’s /Elbe’s life, all other characters save for Einar/Lili have found no reflection in reality.

This questionable literary choice becomes even more prominent when

A portrait of Lili Elbe by Gerda Weneger

you think about the love story that plays as foundation of the novel. At first Einar’s wife has been extremely supportive of his desire to dress as Lili. The shy young woman became the favorite model of Einar’s wife and the paintings depicting Lili Elbe brought her fortune and fame… But the fact is Greta from the Danish Girl did not even exist and the historical inaccuracies, once I found out about them , completely revised my idea of the whole story. Greta from the novel is an American, her whole character and backstory is built around her American roots, while real Gerda Weneger was a Dane. I would have forgiven a change of nationality, had the historical changes ended on that… By the time Einar travels to Germany, they’re already separated and she is married to another man. David Ebershoff gave Einar’s wife a semblance of a happy ending, one that Gerda did not receive in real life.

While it does some semblance of justice to Lili’s internal world, the secondary character development is very lacking. Greta/Gerda supported Einar thought the years and deserved a far better literary treatment. The Danish Girl storyline is a times so overburdened by details and descriptions that you’d want to skim through it.

Eddie Redmayne as Lili Elbe

The narrative focuses on Greta, Einar and Lili and skips between years, thoughts and descriptions of surrounding quite haphazardly. Ultimately falls flat, despite the remarkable story that could have served as a foundation of a literary masterpiece.David Ebershoff provides an interesting take on a extraordinary story, however, The Danish Girl can hardly be named an outstanding first novel.

Overall: 3*

Review: The Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithan

Lover-DictionaryA modern love story told through a series of dictionary-style entries is a sequence of intimate windows into the large and small events that shape the course of a romantic relationship.

Moments of tenderness, intimacy, moments of falling in love and falling apart. The Lover’s Dictionary is an anonymous love story told in snippets of conversation and intimate moments that define relationships. Aberrant, narcissism, taciturn, zenith… Each word, each love story would find a reflection in millions of lives.

David Levithan’s book is a poetic, moving and resounding triumph, one of the most original books about love that I’ve ever read. Of course, 26 letters of the alphabet are not nearly enough to say about love, yet David Leviathan makes a brilliant attempt.

Overall: 5*

Review: Life and Other Near-death Experiences by Camille Pagan

Libby Miller has always been an unwavering optimist—but when her husband drops a bomb on their marriage the same day a doctor delivers devastating news, she realizes her rose-colored glasses have actually been blinding her. With nothing left to lose, she abandons her life in Chicago for the clear waters and bright beaches of the Caribbean for what might be her last hurrah.

I found Libby funny, brave and, at times, absolutely exasperating – maybe these are the reasons why I liked Life and Other Near-death Experiences so much. Camille Pagan made me feel for Libby, get angry with her and for her stubborn insistence that cancer diagnosis is a certain death-sentence.

Libby Miller has 6 months to live, but as it turns out the doctor’s devastating blow is the impulse for her to start living her life fully. She throws out her husband, with whom she’s been together for 18 years and who happens to be gay, quits a job, sells the apartment and flies off to Puerto Rico to see the island where her parents went on their honeymoon. In Puerto Rico she realizes that instead of accepting inevitable death, she could choose to fight. Libby is afraid, of course, anyone would be… Her mum died of cancer and one of the reasons she stubbornly refuses to get treatment is that she does not want to start a fight she fears she will loose. She goes to Puerto Rico to disconnect from everything and enjoy her life for a month, on her way she meets a pilot that nearly kills her (or saves her, depends how you put it) and helps her see that the way forward is to keep fighting. It takes true bravery to accept your fate, it takes even more bravery to try and change it.

Life and Other Near-death Experiences is funny, beautifully-written and realistic, one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read this year.

Overall: 4*

Crimson Peak Edith poster horizontal

Review: Crimson Peak novelization by Nancy Holder

When her heart is stolen by a seductive stranger, a young woman is swept away to a house atop a mountain of blood-red clay: a place filled with secrets that will haunt her forever. 

Crimson Peak novelization is no literary masterpiece and after watching Guillermo del Torro’s mesmerizing film, it reads like a fan fiction of sorts. Nancy Holder’s excellent writing reveals the character’s thoughts and some of the background details excluded from the cinematic production. However, it is what it is – a book based on a movie script – forever prisoner to the constant book-to-screen feelings vs. visuals dilemma.

While I do not – ever – read novelizations, this purchase can truly be blamed on del Torro’s directorial talent, Tom Hiddleston’s charm and Jessica Chastain’s insanely-good acting.  The film left me in a state of raw cinematic hangover that wouldn’t leave me for several days and the darkly romantic novelization was another chance to linger in the haunted Crimson Peak. Entertaining as it was, it is book that would indulge a true fan’s cravings, but not a book that I would re-read. Bring-on the DVD!

Overall: 4*