'All the Light We Cannot See': Why it's still on the bestseller lists

The 2014 Pulitzer Prize winning novel about a French woman and a German man living during World War II with poetic and moral themes around music and science continues its streak on the bestseller list.

'All the Light We Cannot See' is by Anthony Doerr.

In France, a young blind girl learns how to navigate a city by studying a model. In Germany, a young boy with a talent for radios is recruited by the Nazis.

The stories of Marie-Laure and Werner soon become linked, by, among other things, their love of a radio program and an extremely valuable diamond. 

The narrative of the financially successful, prize-winning novel “All the Light We Cannot See,” by Anthony Doerr, is one that has enthralled readers with its focus on World War II and the seemingly stark moral themes that come with that particular conflict. After being published in 2014, the novel won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, among other awards, and became a bestseller. 

And sales have just never stopped.

Why today's audiences are drawn to this story may be a reflection on a yearning for the kind of moral clarity that narratives about WWII tend to embody. It's also appealing because it's about two children trying to preserve something inherently good in a time of great evil. Of course, excellent and accessible writing helps.  

On the Nov. 10 edition of the IndieBound bestseller list, which records sales for independent bookstores in the US, the hardcover fiction bestseller list is mostly populated, naturally enough, by books that have come out within the past couple of months, such as John Grisham’s “The Whistler” (published Oct. 25), “Commonwealth” by Ann Patchett (released Sept 13), and Jodi Picoult’s “Small Great Things” (published Oct. 11). 

And then there’s “All the Light We Cannot See,” holding steadfast at No. 10, topping new releases by authors such as Jojo Moyes and Alice Hoffman. And "All" has spent 130 weeks on the New York Times hardcover fiction list so far. By comparison, the highest amount of time any of the other 15 bestselling books on the Nov. 27 list has been there is 17 weeks.

“It’s still one of our bestsellers,” Courtney Flynn, a manager at Boston’s Trident Booksellers and Café, tells The Christian Science Monitor. “It’s amazing.”

Book critic Steve Donoghue says the success of “All” makes it stand out from even its award-winning brethren. 

“[There are] plenty that have won prizes,” Mr. Donoghue tells the Monitor. “This one has legs.” 

What continues to draw readers to this story? 

Ms. Flynn has seen the book’s time period continue to appeal to readers, as seen in other bestsellers like “Life After Life” by Kate Atkinson and “Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand. 

“The World War II time period … continues to be something people are always wanting to read about, fictional or otherwise,” she says. 

Donoghue, who has written for publications such as The Washington Post and Kirkus Reviews as well as the Monitor, believes the seemingly black-and-white nature of the conflict at the center of the book may be appealing to today's readers.

"You could not possibly do a version of 'All the Light We Cannot See' centered around the Vietnam War," he says. "You couldn't possibly do it. The Good War, you can do that with." 

The book is a prize-winner, having received not only the Pulitzer Prize, but also the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, and having made an appearance on the shortlist for the National Book Award. Yet while some readers might associate award winners with dense and difficult prose, both Flynn and Donoghue praise its accessibility. 

“I think it's literary but not challengingly so,” Flynn says. 

Donoghue says he feels confident he could recommend this book to just about any reader and have them enjoy it. 

“Not because the narrative is simple,” he says. “It isn't simplistic at all. But because it's welcoming, as opposed to, you know, ‘here are the five best tricks I learned to put off my readers when I went to MFA school.’ ” 

And in “All,” Donoghue believes readers trust Doerr with characters' fates, reminding him of the character depictions in another World War II work, Herman Wouk’s “The Winds of War” series.

In the “Winds” books, “you know that the good guys aren't going to come to unambiguously tragic endings,” he says. “They might die, but they'll die saving people, they'll die being all that they can be, that kind of thing. You definitely get that sense in this book, too.” 

Doerr’s novel is also one in which its characters discuss and value the seemingly simple things in life. During their childhood, before Werner begins working for the Nazis, Werner and his sister, Jutta, are enthralled by a radio show about science and classical music. As Marie-Laure grows up in Paris, her beloved father introduces her to Jules Verne works like “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.”

Writing about "All" and its subplot about a valuable diamond, Monitor fiction critic Yvonne Zipp noted, “This is a novel in which canned peaches, John James Audubon, Jules Verne, sea snails, and DeBussy have more value than a polished hunk of compressed carbon. It is a calculus both inarguable and deeply moral.” 

In that regard, Donoghue sees a connection between this novel and the classic 1965 film “The Sound of Music,” which of course also became a huge success.

“The main characters aren't just trying to survive,” he says of the two works. “They also are trying to preserve something, something good that is threatened.”

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