Everything is Illuminated

I’ve long been intrigued by Jonathan Safran Foer; I’ve heard so many people raving about him. So when I saw there was a 2-in-1 hardcover volume with both Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close at National Book Store (so pretty!), I figured it was time to start reading at least one of his novels.

Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer has an interesting history. Apparently it was a much-anticipated (media-wise) release, because it was Foer’s Princeton thesis, with authors Joyce Carol Oates and Jeffrey Eugenides as thesis advisers, and apparently the publisher paid half a million for rights to the novel.

The story is about a young American writer named Jonathan Safran Foer, who travels to Ukraine (the author took a similar trip that inspired the novel) to find his grandfather’s shtetl (town, in Yiddish),Trachimbrod, and a woman who saved his grandfather’s life in World War 2. He is accompanied by a young Ukrainian translator, Alexander Perchov, Alex’s grandfather (claiming to be blind, but he drives on the trip), and his “seeing-eye dog” Sammy Davis Junior Junior from a family-operated touring agency.

The novel is composed of multiple related storylines: chapters written by Jonathan, recreating his family’s history; chapters written by Alex, narrating Jonathan’s present quest, and letters from Alex to Jonathan, which show their continuing friendship.

Illumination comes to the characters in different ways — in identity, in coming to terms with the past, and in accepting the truth about oneself.

I hope that summary suffices, because if I start telling you more, I’ll have to give you three different stories.

The book explores various themes: family, memory and forgetting, the Holocaust, destruction and new beginnings, coincidences, and writing, among others, and I think that may also be what bogs it down.

It took me over a month to finish this novel, drifting on and off because I found it a difficult novel, in the sense that there are some parts that make you devour page after page, while some parts either bewilder you or try your patience.

I found myself plodding through Jonathan’s narratives, as they are not quite so straightforward, and each chunk of them was quite enervating with the misery of the characters. This is in stark contrast to the parts written by Alex, which are uproariously funny, as he is attempting to improve his English using Jonathan’s thesaurus. Aside from the episodes with Sammy Davis Junior Junior, Alex’s malapropisms (oh hello, Mrs. Malaprop!), Alex unwittingly made me laugh each time the narrative shifted to him.

Despite the difficulty of the text, illumination came to me as the reader towards the end of the book, in finding meaning in the tangled web of stories Jonathan Safran Foer has woven.

Stylistic, non-traditional and full of surprises — I’m several years behind, but JSF’s debut novel inspires me to read more of his work.


Everything is Illuminated, hardcover, 3.5/5 stars
Book #67 for 2011





4 thoughts on “Everything is Illuminated”

    1. Yes, it’s pretty isn’t it? There’s a whole series of 2 in 1 books from Houghton Mifflin, all with pretty covers.

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