All the light we cannot


Over the Christmas holiday, I traveled with fantastic children. Intensely curious.
Intellectually insatiable. Addicted to history, science, botany, and classical music.
Teaching themselves trigonometry, mechanics, and evolutionary biology. Impatient to read Proust, Balzac, Dumas, Darwin. Gentle, yet unfazed by adversity. And able to sit completely still for long stretches of time, unsupervised, simply engrossed in the life of the mind.

My three young sons came along, too.

For their part, my boys sprawled in the back of our van during the long, long drive from Nashville to Warm Springs, Virginia. They squirmed, bickered, sighed theatrically, and argued over who got to sit in the far-back man-cave. They misplaced the books I’d made them pack, and begged for iPad time and action movies on the van’s small screen. They poked any brother who dozed off. They spilled milkshakes and complained about our dogs needing floor space under their feet. They pre-competed, fiercely, for the biggest bed in the room they’d share once we finally arrived.

Up in the front seat, I battled to hold my attention instead on those other, more interesting kids, those uncanny intellectuals: the child heroes in my audiobook, All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr.

Yes. Again with the fictional child genius.

You can’t swing a National Book Award these days without hitting an Important Literary Novel about a supernaturally gifted child. Anthony Doerr gives us Werner (orphaned tween radio-engineering prodigy) and Marie-Laure (blind tween Charles Darwin/Jules Verne buff and sea snail scholar). Before them, there was Oskar Schell, the 9-year-old origamist, inventor, entomologist, and archeologist at the center of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathon Safran Foer. Then there was Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet, the 12-year-old cartographer, Native American folklorist, and entomologist (another one!) in The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, by Reif Larsen. And last year’s Big Novel (and Pulitzer Prize winner), The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt, featured 13-year-old orphan Theo Decker, who, although not an entomologist, navigates a hostile adult world through sheer resilience and un-childlike self-determination. I know, I know, he also does a lot of drugs, and he even steals groceries. But let’s be honest, Tartt never even begins to let Theo’s stoner ways dull his profound, fundamental specialness. If he’s an anti-hero, he’s a humble-bragging one.

So, why all this fantasy about supernaturally gifted children? Maybe it’s the Harry Potter effect. Who doesn’t love that 11-year-old wizard, hidden
under the stairs? Or Hugo Cabret, the 12-year-old automaton-savant, surviving high above Paris in a train station clock? Except that Harry Potter and Hugo Cabret are fantasy-child-genius characters written for children. And All the Light We Cannot See, The Goldfinch and the other Important Literary Novels about exceptionally accomplished kids were written for adults.

This struck me hard, as I struggled to hear Doerr’s novel over my noisy back-seat sons. Why do adult fiction readers find these made-up prodigies so compelling?

It’s risky to generalize, but look around the next time you’re out and about, at the grocery store, say, or at a restaurant, or walking past a playground. Take a good hard look at the real-life children around you, and maybe even your own. They’re loud, demanding, fidgety, messy, inattentive, self-absorbed, frequently lazy and often cruel to each other in a remarkably casual way. They resist reading books adults consider worthy. Proust rarely makes the cut.

That’s right, I said it. And it’s true of my precious sons, too: real-life children have their moments, but they’re no genius literary heroes.

Now contrast Anthony Doerr’s Werner and Marie-Laure. Sure, they’re unnaturally intellectual for pre-teens, and their otherworldly ability to sit still and concentrate is enviable. But even more stunning is their prodigious emotional genius. They’re deeply attuned to the tiniest details of the natural world, of their homes and neighborhoods. They’re exquisitely sensitive to the humans nearby, especially the adults who look after them. They have that magic-person knack of intuiting the most fundamental truths, the most profound yearnings, about those they encounter, whether it’s the young amateur
ornithologist (naturally) who befriends Werner in his Nazi Youth academy, or Marie-Laure’s WW I-damaged, agoraphobic great uncle, who joins her make believe world voyages from the sofa in his study. These two, Werner and Marie-Laure, are tender, quivering antennae, emotionally tuned in to others all the time.

Why should we women – literary fiction’s fan base – so love that fantasy? Are we yearning for some child, maybe even one at home, to understand us with that
same emotional genius? Are we secretly disappointed that real life, with our real-life children, is so much less sensitive, so much less literary, than life with Marie-Laure might be? That real life is so much more lonely?

It’s easy to over-think, of course. Maybe readers love fictional child prodigies for the same reason some like Fifty Shades of Grey: it’s an escape into a free fantasy world with better casting and snazzier set design.

But it’s one thing, for a few hundred pages, to make the fictional swap of one’s dear, middle-aged husband for a dashing, thrilling-if-creepy, billionaire art collector. And quite another thing for an adult, for a parent, to gorge on the details of 9-year-old Marie-Laure reading and re-reading her first Jules Verne until the “braille is soft and fraying.” Or of 8-year-old Werner, in his grim German orphanage near the coalmines, divining how to build, from junk, a radio that picks up French orchestra and science broadcasts, to soothe his small sister. A gorgeous miracle, that radio, so profound it forces even Werner to “swallow back tears.” What real child can compare?

In this era of high-res perfectionism, our Instagram-driven age, the wild popularity of child-genius fiction for adults raises a tiny red flag. Serious readers choose serious fiction, I’ll be bold to claim, because we believe, deep down, there’s a chance we might learn something true and important about humans, and about human nature, in these acclaimed novels. Their characters – especially the achingly beautiful ones like Werner and Marie-Laure – feed into our shared understanding of what human life can be, and even should be.

You might assume these novels are worlds apart from popular culture’s
dispiriting stew of Photoshopped models and curated celebrity brands. But all these hyper-perfected images add up. The gap grows between what’s ideal and what’s, well, fidgeting in my van’s back seat.

So, by all means, read and love All the Light We Cannot See. Suggest it for your book club, and hand it on to your sister. Then walk more slowly the next time you pass a playground, and admire with all your heart the raucous, self-absorbed, and un-literary children you’ll surely find there.

That’s where the true beauty lies.

Laura Fitzgerald Cooper lives in Nashville with her husband and three sons. She was a professor of public constitutional law at Washington and Lee University before retiring to spend time with her boys. Follow her blog at No Real Plot.

Like On Parenting on Facebook for more essays, news and advice. You can sign up here for our newsletter.

You might also be interested in:

Practicing civility in an uncivil world

How technology has changed our parenting lives

Dealing with a 4-year-old’s behavior, without using time-outs