Review: Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

Everything is IlluminatedWith only a yellowing photograph in hand, a young man – also named Jonathan Safran Foer – sets out to find the woman who may or may not have saved his grandfather from the Nazis. Accompanied by an old man haunted by memories of the war; an amorous dog named Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior; and the unforgettable Alex, a young Ukrainian translator who speaks in a sublimely butchered English, Jonathan is led on a quixotic journey over a devastated landscape and into an unexpected past.” – Goodreads

Jonathan Safran Foer is a bleeping genius. Everything is Illuminated is one of the best books I’ve read in a very long time. It evokes so many emotions – humor, hope, fear, uncertainty, and heartbreak. Reading this novel was a delightful yet thought-provoking experience, one that has stayed with me long after completing it.

The story is based on a character named (as the author is) Jonathan Safran Foer. He is a twenty-something writer who has traveled to the Ukraine to find the tiny village of Trachimbrod, where his grandfather grew up and where a woman named Augustine saved him from the Nazis during World War II. Jonathan does not speak the local language, and the maps he carries of the area towns are over sixty years old. He has employed a travel agency to guide him on his journey. Alex, the twenty-something son of the agency’s owner, is employed as Jonathan’s translator. Alex’s grandfather (also named Alexander), is their driver. They are accompanied by the grandfathers “seeing-eye bitch”, Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior.

The story is fragmented, in a few different narratives. A major part is written by Alex. He writes in his form of translated English, which gives the narrative a humorous and touching effect. He tells the story of their search for Augustine and Trachimbrod, and their adventures along the way. Another large part of the story is written by the character Jonathan, and is a history of the Jewish village of Trachimbrod, covering its history from the day it was christened with its name in 1791 until the day of its destruction by the Nazis in 1941. Much of this narrative is surreal and whimsical as he follows the exploits of his ancestors; often there is much, especially regarding the earlier history, that does not make much sense. Interspersed between these two sections are letters from Alex to Jonathan offering commentary on Jonathan’s writing regarding Trachimbrod, Jonathan’s critique of Alex’s own writing, and introducing his upcoming section of narrative. Later in the book, grandfather Alexander takes over for a while, sharing his own memories and history about the Nazis and World War II.

I was initially turned off by the bizarre and surreal writing about Trachimbrod’s early history. Not only did it not hold any interest for me, but it annoyed me greatly. Although it eventually got better as time moved on and I grew more comfortable with it, this remained a downside of the novel for me. But, oh. Oh! Alex’s narrative was the bright, shiny star of this novel and shine, shine, shine it did. Aside from the fact that his translated English was both adorable and hilarious, much of the time it was thoughtful and poignant, as well. He touches on so many aspects, including friendship, family, dreams, grief, and regret.

Everything is Illuminated is a delightful novel – hilarious, moving, disturbing… among other things. Despite the strange historical narrative it is a story I truly cherished reading. Jonathan Safran Foer has most definitely made it onto my radar, and he isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Lincoln City Libraries Digital Downloads

4 thoughts on “Review: Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

  1. Mira says:

    In saw the movie and absolutely loved did. Decided then to read the book as well. I love it when movies compel you to do that. In fact, now that I think about it, I think we’ve moved to a time where more and more people read the books after they see the movies. Maybe we’re all becoming better readers and look for much more than just a story.

    • Pathologically Literate says:

      No worries, I mangle often. 🙂 I had heard there was a movie… I guess might have to hit up Netflix for it. The problem with watching the movie after reading the book is that it’s almost always such a let-down. Perhaps you’re onto something by switching things around!

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