ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE is easily one of the most popular and influential books of the last decade, and I’m setting out to recommend books like it? No, this won’t be hard at all! While the task was monumental, I’ve somehow managed to put together a list of must-read books for fans of ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE. Although Marie-Laure LeBlanc and Werner Pfennig do not make any appearances in these comparative novels, there are many other characters that’ll capture your heart, and beautiful prose you’ll be underlining. And, since all the books also have WWII settings, they’ll greatly expand your understanding of this time in history.
Anthony Doerr explains in this video that what sparked the start of his bestselling novel was the magic and connection of radio during wartime. And the motifs of communication and storytelling resonate throughout the plot with two overlapping stories. Similarly, the idea for Cuban author Armando Lucas Correa’s novel revolves around a wartime event with alternating stories. The author spent years researching the tragic story of the SS St. Louis, which carried Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany but was denied entry to ports overseas, eventually forcing its devastating return, where many of the passengers die. Themes of survival, travel, rescue, loss, and hope echo throughout THE GERMAN GIRL as it alternates timelines between Hannah, who lives in 1939 Berlin, and Anna, from present-day New York. As the novel slowly reveals, these two young girls are connected across the years and continents, and the plot is expertly woven as it builds slowly to a devastating end.
Just as ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE explores the power of storytelling, THE PARIS LIBRARY explores literature’s power to unite. Through the perspective of Odile, we learn about the brave librarians at the American Library in Paris who brought books to Jews who were banned from visiting the library by the Nazis. The second timeline takes place in the 1980s and follows a young girl named Lily, who interviews Odile for a school project. Author Janet Skeslien Charles was herself a librarian at the American Library in Paris. She fills this amazing work with genuine passion and exquisite attention to details—which makes this novel a true ode to libraries and storytelling.
Based on the true World War II story of the heroic librarians at the American Library in Paris, this is an unforgettable story of romance, friendship, family, and the power of literature to bring us together, perfect for fans of The Lilac Girls and The Paris Wife.
Paris, 1939: Young and ambitious Odile Souchet has it all: her handsome police officer beau and a dream job at the American Library in Paris. When the Nazis march into Paris, Odile stands to lose everything she holds dear, including her beloved library. Together with her fellow librarians, Odile joins the Resistance with the best weapons she has: books. But when the war finally ends, instead of freedom, Odile tastes the bitter sting of unspeakable betrayal.
Montana, 1983: Lily is a lonely teenager looking for adventure in small-town Montana. Her interest is piqued by her solitary, elderly neighbor. As Lily uncovers more about her neighbor’s mysterious past, she finds that they share a love of language, the same longings, and the same intense jealousy, never suspecting that a dark secret from the past connects them.
A powerful novel that explores the consequences of our choices and the relationships that make us who we are—family, friends, and favorite authors—The Paris Library shows that extraordinary heroism can sometimes be found in the quietest of places.
While reading ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE, it’s especially heartbreaking to think about the conflict between the young Werner Pfennig’s expected trajectory, and where he wants to end up. Werner revels in learning and inventions, all the while knowing that as a student in a German state school at the time, he’ll be expected to join the Nazi party. This tension also appears in THE GOOD AT HEART, in which author Ursula Werner pulls from stories about her great-grandfather to narrate three intense days that take place within a German family when they flee to their vacation home in southern Germany during WWII. The four women in the family tend to their picturesque gardens and attempt to get along—but their true inner lives, dreams, and fears are revealed over the course of the next few days, and ramp up as the Nazi patriarch of the family returns, just as one of them is heroically attempting to hide two Polish Jewish refugees.
Some of the best historical fiction completely immerses you in another culture, and THE STREET OF A THOUSAND BLOSSOMS does just that. This character-driven, coming-of-age story follows two brothers in WWII Japan—one brother studies how to hand-carve masks for the theater, another trains to become a sumo wrestler. As the reader follows them into adulthood, you begin to feel like you know them, since their ambitions and idiosyncrasies are so well-developed. Spanning almost thirty years, the events cover Pearl Harbor, the firebombing of Tokyo, and the transformation of Japan after the war. Told with prose as beautiful as Doerr’s, this book is an enlightening read to add to your bookshelf.
Tokyo, 1939. Two orphaned brothers have dreams rooted in Japanese tradition but live in a world on the brink of war. This tale of ritual and change, loss and renewal, and love and family is a powerfully moving work of historical fiction.
It feels close to magic when an author can seemingly inhabit the minds of completely different characters, as Anthony Doerr does. Author Marge Piercy takes on this challenge as well in GONE TO SOLDIERS, illuminating the lives of six women and four men during WWII. We meet members of the French Jewish resistance, factory workers in the US, young students, journalists on a new career path, and so many more. And their stories (occasionally overlapping) are described with such depth and research, it feels as if you know them. Marge Piercy joins Anthony Doerr in expertly depicting a beautiful humanity juxtaposed against the ugly inhumanity of war.
“More than 750 pages long, GONE TO SOLDIERS can definitely be intimidating, and I knew when I picked up this novel that it would need to be extraordinary in order to hold my attention for a few weeks. Thankfully, I was not disappointed.”
For another book that realistically and heartbreakingly captures war through the eyes of a child, pick up EMPIRE SUN by J. G. Ballard. When a young British boy ends up separated from his parents in an internment camp after the Japanese takeover in Shanghai, he grows up bearing witness to the changes around him in the POW camp. This novel, based partly on the author’s life, portrays the trauma very realistically, from the dissonance of his emotions to the moral gray areas that confront him.
A young British teenager is separated from his parents when the Japanese invade Shanghai, where he lives. His struggle to find his parents and to survive as a prisoner of war is crazy and quite harrowing. Trivia: did you know the movie adaptation stars a very young Christian Bale? I know, right?!
Author Chris Cleave was inspired to write EVERYONE BRAVE IS FORGIVEN after finding letters sent between his grandparents before they’d actually met—one stationed in Malta, the other living in England. In EVERYONE BRAVE IS FORGIVEN, we follow the perspectives of four young Brits: young London socialite Mary, tasked with teaching evacuee children; her school administrator, Tom, who she starts a relationship with; Tom’s best friend, Alistair, who joins the army but comes back on leave and forms feelings for Mary; and Hilda, Mary’s best friend, whose interest in Alistair just complicates everything even more. This love quadrangle shifts around and builds in intensity as the story lines of war come to a head. With similar themes to that of ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE—missed connections, expertly handled multiple perspectives, and the gruesome realities of war—this sweeping novel is truly something to savor.
From the beloved author of LITTLE BEE comes this masterful historical novel set in London during the blitz. Inspired by the real-life love letters between Chris Cleave’s grandparents, EVERYONE BRAVE IS FORGIVEN is a moving wartime love story. Against the great theater of world events, it is the small battles and the daily human triumphs that change us the most.
Read a review of EVERYONE BRAVE IS FORGIVEN here.
This is one of my favorite books of all time and it compares to ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE more in the sense of its character-driven plot than anything else. Instead of WWII Paris, we’re in South Africa slightly after WWII. The drive and compassion of these characters—and a poignant coming-of-age story—are what make this book amazing. Bullied as a young child, Peekay shows enormous strength of character as he goes through life absorbing the good qualities in those around him and questioning or merely observing the bad ones. As peripheral events hurl him across the country, the people Peekay meets encompass the range of cultural conflicts in South Africa at the time: a train conductor who instills in him an ambition and passion for boxing; a German professor whose interest in plants teaches him about curiosity, and more! Peekay’s interactions are set against a historical background that opens your perspective into other cultures, personalities, and paths of life.
In 1930s South Africa, a young boy experiences firsthand the brutality of racial hatred and comes to learn the hard way how to survive in an unforgiving environment. This fascinating and hopeful novel showcases the power of words to transform lives and the inspiring power of the individual.
As Anthony Doerr explains in this video, he likes to base his stories around a particular invention that he finds fascinating. In ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE it was the radio. In his upcoming novel CLOUD CUCKOO LAND, it’s one of the greatest and most ancient of inventions—books! In this world-expanding new work, five people throughout time and space care deeply for a manuscript, and go to extreme lengths to keep the stories in it alive. For a story that begins in the first century and ends in 2146, and somehow manages to feel both grand and intimate at the same time, pick up a copy of CLOUD CUCKOO LAND on September 28.
From the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of All the Light We Cannot See, perhaps the most bestselling and beloved literary fiction of our time, comes a triumph of imagination and compassion, a soaring novel about children on the cusp of adulthood in a broken world, who find resilience, hope, and story.
The heroes of Cloud Cuckoo Land are trying to figure out the world around them: Anna and Omeir, on opposite sides of the formidable city walls during the 1453 siege of Constantinople; teenage idealist Seymour in an attack on a public library in present day Idaho; and Konstance, on an interstellar ship bound for an exoplanet, decades from now. Like Marie-Laure and Werner in All the Light We Cannot See, Anna, Omeir, Seymour, and Konstance are dreamers and outsiders who find resourcefulness and hope in the midst of peril.
An ancient text—the story of Aethon, who longs to be turned into a bird so that he can fly to a utopian paradise in the sky—provides solace and mystery to these unforgettable characters. Doerr has created a tapestry of times and places that reflects our vast interconnectedness—with other species, with each other, with those who lived before us and those who will be here after we’re gone.
Dedicated to “the librarians then, now, and in the years to come,” Cloud Cuckoo Land is a hauntingly beautiful and redemptive novel about stewardship—of the book, of the Earth, of the human heart.
And of course a reread of ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE is the perfect option while you for Anthony Doerr's newest masterpiece to arrive!
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, a New York Times Book Review Top Ten Book, National Book Award finalist, more than two and a half years on the New York Times bestseller list
From the highly acclaimed, multiple award-winning Anthony Doerr, the stunningly beautiful instant New York Times bestseller about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.
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. Deftly interweaving the lives of Marie-Laure and Werner, Doerr illuminates the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another.
Doerr’s “stunning sense of physical detail and gorgeous metaphors” (San Francisco Chronicle) are dazzling. Ten years in the writing, a National Book Award finalist, All the Light We Cannot See is a magnificent, deeply moving novel from a writer “whose sentences never fail to thrill” (Los Angeles Times).
Photo credit: Scribner Books