Everything is illuminated : a novel

by Jonathan Safran Foer

Hardcover, 2002

Status

Available

Genres

Publication

Boston : Houghton Mifflin Co., 2002.

Description

Jonathan is a Jewish college student searching Europe for the one person he believes can explain his roots. Alex, a lover of all things American and unsurpassed butcher of the English language, is his lovable Ukrainian guide. On their quixotic quest, the two young men look for Augustine, a woman who might have saved Jonathan's grandfather from the Nazis. As past and present merge, hysterically funny moments collide with episodes of great tragedy -- and an unforgettable story of one family's extraordinary history unfolds.

User reviews

LibraryThing member atheist_goat
Look, somebody has to say it. This book needed an editor to go at it with a pair of gardening shears and then tell Safran Foer to come back to it when he's grown up. It is so, so immature.

I staggered through this, waiting for the promised brilliance, getting increasingly bitter as it failed to appear. The "hilarity" of the Russian's thesaurus-English falls flat by the third page, but gets belabored for two hundred more; the magical realism half could have been written by any college student arrogant enough to read Garcia Marquez and think, "I can do that." And that sort of arrogance - that cockiness - is by its nature immature, and permeates the novel.

Safran Foer has potential as a writer, but with the publication of this and its acclaim I worry that he has no incentive to grow as an author, as he's been told his adolescent efforts are perfect. Perhaps I will check out what he's writing in a couple decades. Then again, perhaps not.
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LibraryThing member Magadri
I admit when I first began reading this book, I was confused. I almost stopped reading, but luckily I stayed with it. It is broken into three different chapter types: letters from Alex after Jonathan visited, Alex's story detailing Jonathan's visit, and Jonathan's novel about his ancestors. These chapters rotate, and it was a lot of fun jumping back and forth between the stories. As one reviewer already mentioned, Alex's letters repeated quite a bit from Jonathan's stories, and this was slightly annoying, but it didn't ruin the book for me. All of the stories were very interesting, although Jonathan's stories remained fairly confusing throughout the novel, but I learned to just go with it, and I really enjoyed this book. I would definitely read it again.… (more)
LibraryThing member ffortsa
It took me a little effort to get into it - I thought it was very annoying at first. But my patience was handsomely rewarded. The story, often funny and mysterious, has a final deep emotional reward.

For those who have not heard about it, it is couched as the story of a man in search of the woman who rescued his grandfather during the Second World War. In the process, we get a picture of a family struggling to understand the new world of the present day Ukraine, the legacy of tragic decisions made in the war, and a magical almost Chagall-like story of village life before the twentieth century.

Once it caught me, I couldn't put it down.
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LibraryThing member edgeworth
MORE LIKE "EVERYTHING IS BORING!"

As critically acclaimed as it is, I just could not get into this novel at all. It has three interweaving stories: one about a Jewish village in the late 18th and early 19th century, one about the same village in the lead-up to World War II, and one in the late 1990's where Jonathan Safran himself travels to the Ukraine to try to locate the village with the assistance of Ukrainian lad Alex, who serves as narrator.

Every single one of these stories is dull and tedious. It's heavily Jewish, and reminded me of all the worst and most sentimental aspects of Michael Chabon. In fact, this may be the most perfect example I have ever found of Chabon's Epiphanic Dew Theory. Virtually every chapter in the story is overflowing with ham-fisted life and love and loss. Foer cannot restrain himself from trying to instill a deep profundity into almost everything that exists, and it's an absolute drag to read. The final revelation about Alex's grandfather was bleedingly obvious from the early chapters, and I wasn't exactly astounded to discover that - shock horror - the Nazis were really evil and some atrocious things happened during World War II.

Thumbs down, won't be reading any of his other books.
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LibraryThing member deebee1
A seemingly light novel about not so light themes, Foer does a successful job of being funny and moving at the same time. A young Jewish American (named after the author, Foer) goes to Ukraine in search of a woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. There is only an old photograph, and the name of an obscure village, to go by. He enlists the services of a tour company, and he is given a quirky old man as driver and his grandson, as translator, plus a dog with a personality. While the main theme is the search, the novel is actually a tapestry of stories of several characters spanning several generations. These are put together through letters between Foer and Alex (the translator), a sincere, if a bit naive young man who writes horrendous but immensely funny English, memories of the grandfather, and the plot of a story that Foer is writing.

I enjoyed this story, not just because of Alex's laugh-out-loud way of expressing himself in English, but because of its element of magico-realism. There is a dream-like quality to the events and the characters who lived in the village before the war destroyed it forever. The novel evokes a haunting, nostalgic feeling, but there is an underlying sadness in the recurrent themes of love, desire, happiness, destruction, and loss. The novel, in fact, turns out not to be a funny and light one.
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LibraryThing member reichec
It is easy to get lost in this book, but not necessarily in a good way. This is Foer’s first novel, published in 2002, and it earned him the Guardian First Book Award and inclusion in ‘1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die’.

The novel conveys a sense of autobiography and indeed it reportedly expands on Foer’s earlier thesis for a philosophy degree and draws on his own travel experiences.

It makes heavy-handed use of modernist narrative devices, playing with chronology and switching narrative perspective frequently throughout. The result is an often confusing tale about a young man exploring significant events in his family history. In order to do so, he travels to the Ukraine, hiring some local people to assist him, and they become central to unfolding events. Interestingly, at no point is the story told directly from the perspective of ‘the hero’ (Foer himself). We see the hero only through the eyes of his driver/interpreter Alex, in either letter form or first-person narrative, or more indirectly through Foer’s novelised account of historical events in the Ukrainian town of Trachimbrod.

The novel interleaves the present day account of Foer’s quest with significant events in the village of his ancestors. This (presumably) fictionalised family history, from the year 1791 to World War II, is quite hilarious. The bizarre antics of the inhabitants, their idiosyncrasies and strange relationships, are a source of regular mirth.

Foer also has fun with Alex’s imprecise use of English, which at times is quaintly amusing: “Soon I will possess enough currency to purchase a plane voucher to America”. But it becomes rather cumbersome and irritating. Nevertheless, Alex’s youthful exuberance and commitment to the hero’s quest provide the driving force behind the tale, which leads inevitably to dark revelations and painful truths.

Eventually the hero’s journey leads to a horrifying discovery: the execution of Trachimbrod’s Jewish citizens by German soldiers in 1942, and its repercussions through to the present day. Those events contrast sharply with the whimsical nature of much of the novel, suggesting intent by the author to shock and sadden the reader. Again, I felt toyed with. Perhaps it was important for Foer to write about the brutal impact of the final solution on his personal heritage, but I couldn’t help thinking, “Oh, another holocaust story”.

Unfortunately, I felt more irritated by this novel than ‘illuminated’. As an experiment in modernist narrative styles it is interesting, but confusing; a little too self-consciously clever, rather than great story-telling. There are many hilarious moments and reflections on the human condition, and a reminder of Nazi brutality, but it is a book I would only conditionally recommend to others.
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LibraryThing member Jenners26
I don't really know how to start telling you about this book! It is far from a straightforward narrative so it is probably best to start by describing the three primary story arcs:

* The narration by Ukrainian translator Alexander Perchov. Alex is a young man who has a troubled home life but is hired to guide a young writer named Jonathan Safran Foer on a quest to find the woman who may have saved his grandfather from the Nazis. Accompanying Alex and Jonathan is Alex's grandfather (also named Alex ... so as to make things as confusing as possible!) who is haunted by his own memories of the war and Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior—a flatulent dog who has amorous feelings to Jonathan.

* Excerpts from the novel that Jonathan Safran Foer is writing about his family's history in the Ukrainian shetl (village) of Trachimbrod. The "novel" ranges from 1791 to 1971 and is told in a magical realism style that defies coherent description. Ranging from broadly comical to fanciful to what can only be called "experimental" (there are flowcharts! fragments of dreams written by villagers! two pages of dots with fragmented words mixed in! a snippet of a play!), these parts of the book can be delightful, irritating, confusing and profound—sometimes all on the same page.

* Letters written by Alex to Jonathan commenting on the novel that Jonathan is writing and Alex's own narrations. In these letters, Alex offers critiques of Jonathan's novel, commentary on the changes that Jonathan suggested for Alex's narration, and increasingly revealing information about Alex's home life. I believe the term for this type of fiction is called metafiction and, let me tell you, it messes with your mind.

Somewhere in all of this is a story about family, friendship, the meaning of love, Nazis, the Holocaust, betrayal, mental illness, the power of the past, what is means to be Jewish, and the nature of truth—but you have to work hard to get it. I was often unsure about what was happening or happened or might have happened. This book is not for the faint-hearted. You're going to have to keep your wits about you while you read. "But is it worth it," you ask. And my answer is....I don't know.

I was very conflicted while reading this book. At times, I was literally laughing out loud at some of Alex's broken English. (You have to be a master of the English language before you can butcher it this amazingly and creatively and artfully.) At other times, I was fighting off a headache from trying to figure out what was happening. I tend to be somewhat of a lazy reader, and this book pushed me to my limits. Honestly, if it weren't for the parts narrated by Alex and Alex's letters to Jonathan, I don't know that I would have made it through the entire book. These parts were an respite for me—an oasis amid the craziness of the "Jonathan's novel" sections.

In the end, though, I'm glad I read this book. It felt like an accomplishment of some sort. This book is very highly regarded and considered a modern classic, which is why I gave it a go in the first place. Foer was only in his early 20s when he wrote this, and I find that impressive. Yet, at the same time, I wonder if his precociousness was detrimental. There were many many times I felt like Foer was showing off: "Hey, look what I can do, Reader! Can you do this? Have you seen this before? I bet you haven't! Can you believe I'm only in my early 20s?" Yet, the more magnanimous part of me says "Congrats to you, Jonathan, for pulling off such a high-wire act. You've got talent, and I'm curious to see what you'll do next."

So, I'm giving this my "special" rating for books that I have mixed feelings about: 3.5 stars. This rating is reserved for books I think are worth reading and have flashes of brilliance but something about them kept me from falling love or being able to give a wholehearted recommendation.
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LibraryThing member Sean191
Part hilarious, part heartbreaking and unfortunately, part confusing. I really enjoyed it...then I kind of enjoyed it...then I experienced a "huh?" moment, followed by a little bit of a ramp-up to the ending, but it didn't end on as strong a note as I thought it could have.
LibraryThing member tobiejonzarelli
Everything Is Illuminated is different kind of love story, and it encompasses love in all it's many forms. Alex Perchov, a young Ukraniana, "a very premium person" as he describes himself, posturing as both translator and travel guide delightfully butchers the English language as he helps Jonathan Safran Foer locate Augustine, a woman whom Jonathan believes may have saved his grandfather from the Nazis. In search of the village Trachimbrod, driven by Alex's grandfather and his bitch named Sammy Davis Junior, Junior we bear witness to humor, tenderness, grief, and tragedy.
Jonathan Safran Foer, the author not the protagonist navigates multiple story threads through time in a sometimes dizzying fashion, and leaves us breathless for more. We find the Jonathan Safran Foer in the book, writing about the history of Trachimbrod and the life of his great great great great great grandmother, while receiving letters from Alex in his fractured English in the present, all interspersed with the adventure to locate a woman in a photograph. While it does require close reading, it is well worth the effort.
This is a laugh out loud, belly aching book, but is also a heartbreaking story, and in a sense a coming to terms with the search for self. I adored this novel. Having also watched the movie three times I must also add that I loved that too! This should be in your TBR pile.
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LibraryThing member lriley
A hello to Sarah S. out there who is a huge fan of Foer's and who gave me this book.

Everything is Illuminated is sometimes a quirky book and sometimes not. Sometimes serious and sometimes more sly than serious. Jonathan Safran Foer himself is a main character on a visit to the Ukraine to find whatever possibly remains of his grandparents whose village Trachimbrod was destroyed by the invading Nazi army during WWII. He is guided by Alex--a young Ukrainian charged with translating for him and Alex's sometimes grumpy grandfather who does the actual driving and with their female dog Sammy Davis Junior Junior either riding shotgun or in the back seat with Foer.

Running parallel to the contemporary story is another story--a kind of fictionalized history of the small Eastern European town mentioned above that the character Safran Foer's family originally came from--this history which Safran Foer is writing as they search for clues to the past. A third thread which kind of glues the present and past threads together are the letters Alex writes to Jonathan after Jonathan returns to the United States which comment on everything from Alex's hopes and dreams to the chapters of the book that Jonathan has let Alex see to the trials and tribulations of Alex's own family life.

What happens to Foer's fictional town during WWII is very tragic but not all that unusual for the place and the time. It doesn't make it less disturbing. The pseudo-scientific Nazi ideology made of evil a normal thing for everyday ordinary Germans--or what Curzio Malaparte would describe them as in his 'Kaputt'--'kranken volk'--sick people. Though it does go farther than the Germans--as Eastern and Slavic Europe has always been a powder keg for religious and cultural animosity.

Anyway Foer's book is a search for what little remains of that past. It's also a meditation on guilt and forgiveness--on the nature of living in harmony with each other with at least the show of tolerance and respect and quite often it can even be laugh out loud funny. Sometimes we have to wake up from our own history--even here in the United States being that we are not necessarily beyond the reach of an ideology anymore than those ordinary Germans were back in the 30's and 40's--and thinking that we are is dangerous ground to be walking on. The invasion of Iraq in March of 2003 should be enough to say on that subject. Everything is Illuminated is certainly worthwhile reading and I'll note a past association of Foer with one Robert Coover--a writer who has been neglected in this country much more than he deserves. Recommended.
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LibraryThing member eas311
Dude, Alex is fantastic. I fell a little in love with him. Not in an "in love" way, but in a "I want to cuddle you and make the hurt go away because you are trying sooooo hard to be cool"
LibraryThing member mariacfox
I went into reading this book with apprehension. The first bit of it seemed extremely confusing to me and the plot jumped back and forth. However, once I got a hang of it, I fell into the characters and their experiences. Foer's writing style is absolutely magnificent and unique. I love his rendition of the war from a small town's point of view, not just your usual Number the Stars-type World War II novel. I don't even know what else to say. This book almost made me cry, and barely anything does that. Please read this! You will love it so much!… (more)
LibraryThing member mojacobs
This book had me in two minds all the time: I got very irritated with the broken English Foer has his Ukrainian Alex use, and contrary to the other reviewers, it did not get me laughing at all. And from very early on, you know that there are dark secrets to be exposed; with a lot of pain as a result. That would normally have been enough for me to give up reading it - but Safran has created such a vivid and likeable cast of characters, that I could not stay aloof: to stop reading would leave so much unresolved, I just had to go on, knowing little or no good could come of it... I cannot say I "liked" or "loved" this book, but someone who can keep me reading till the end, when every time I take up the book, I hear this faint voice in my head saying:"I think I'd really rather stop because this is going to hurt", is a great writer indeed. ”… (more)
LibraryThing member LaraRose
I absolutely loved Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, so I was a little disappointed with Foer's first novel. It had many strong elements; the character of Alex is unique and lovable, and many parts made me laugh out loud, especially Sammy Davis Junior Junior, while the story about Herschel moved me to tears. I loved many of the stories within the story, but as a whole, the novel was strange and incomplete. I was very lost at many points throughout the book, but I hoped that it would stay true to its title and "everything [would be] illuminated" at the end. It was not.
I never understood who Augustine was supposed to be, I didn't like or understand Safran, and what I really wanted to know was how Jonathan knew all of these stories about Trachimbrod and what made him go searching for Augustine in the first place. Jonathan Safran Foer was on the edges of the story, but he wasn't really in it. We never understood any of his motives or learn anything about him. I think he needs to be either in or out, because his half-involvement only added more confusion to the already puzzling novel.
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LibraryThing member melydia
(unabridged audiobook): This is the story of Jonathan the American and Alex the Ukrainian, who are both writing novels and sharing them with each other chapter by chapter. The stories switch off regularly: first a portion of Alex's novel about his time working as translator for Jonathan as they journey through Ukraine looking for a woman who saved Jonathan's grandfather from the Nazis during WWII. Next is a chapter from Jonathan's novel about his ancestors in Ukraine. Lastly is a letter from Alex to Jonathan to discuss their novels-in-progress. There were two readers: one playing Alex and reading his novel and letters, and the other reading Jonathan's novel. Alex's frequent malapropisms are quite funny, in no small part due to the talented reader, but the back-and-forth of translation often leads to an obnoxious amount of repetition. Jonathan's novel is, sadly, a complete waste of time. I'm not sure how much of this is due to the awkward, boring reader and how much is simply overwrought prose.… (more)
LibraryThing member Mavol
It was disappointing to read this book after so many people have told me that I should definitely read it because of my Russian-Jewish background, or that it's hilarious, or other reasons. I really didn't like it. It was boring, with circular prose that seemed to go nowhere, and a very straight-forward overlapping of time, for our day and age, at least. Most importantly it was just not intelligent - the idea was well-informed, but nothing about the execution could be labeled as that. Facts were made crooked, fiction was uselessly vague, jokes were no better than slapstick, in addition to which, I have absolutely no interest in reading purposeful bad English from a native speaker. The way he mimicked bad English of a foreigner was disturbing not because it was unrealistic, but because it was un-linguistic and stupid.

I am generally very rarely completely disappointed with a book, but this is one of the few occasions when it happened.
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LibraryThing member irinipasi
This was like brain candy for me- all of the plays on language from the Ukrainian trying to boast his English skills had me cracking up. I loved the shifts in the narrative, and the way that each character was presented through a certain lens. My only disappointment was the way that the mood became so solemn towards the end of the book. It felt like an emotional roller coaster that suddenly crashed and burned. The book is meant to be more than just a piece of comedy, I know, but I almost felt tircked into sadness.… (more)
LibraryThing member aliastori
Excellent and original.
LibraryThing member Ambrosia4
On the surface "Everything Is Illuminated" is a simple story of a Jewish American, named for the author, who travels to the Ukraine in order to research his family's history. In fact, the book tells two intersecting stories: one of Foer's ancestors and one of his current travels with his travel guides, Alex, his grandfather, and their ridiculous dog. While the story begins as humorous, it quickly gets to the root of the issues and a mix begins to occur between the ridiculous and the moving. I saw this as a clever parallel on life itself: we hide emotions behind humor, but eventually everyone must confront themselves in order to move forward.

The story of this unlikely group's journey begins to become not just Jonathan's story, but Alex and his grandfather's as well. While Foer searches for his family and the mysterious Augustine, Alex unexpectedly confronts his own family history and his grandfather faces his past. It becomes a story of two families that parallel each other in strange and surprising ways.

On the reader's tour of the Ukraine, Foer takes the time to treat us to humorous interludes from the road, as well as fleshing out the quirky history of the hero's family. His creative use of language amazed, as well as drew me further into the story and connected me to his character's emotions. This novel is highly recommended, but a warning to readers looking for a funny book about a road trip: look elsewhere.
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LibraryThing member littlegeek
Sorry peeps, I just don't get what's supposed to be so great about this book. It's gimmicky, self-indulgent and derivative, with stock characters. Everything that people praise, including the bad English of the narrator, has been done before and done better. Go read Kaaterskill Falls already!
LibraryThing member dczapka
Everything Is Illuminated is certainly a novel of great power, with a strong message and intense delivery, but that power is depleted somewhat by its contorted structure and convoluted narrative.

The layout of the novel is perhaps its most radical feature, as three intersecting stories lines play out consecutively. One involves a young man, named Jonathan Safran Foer, looking for a woman in a photograph who may have saved his grandfather from the Nazis, told by a Ukranian translator named Alex whose version of English involves liberal (often incorrect) use of his thesaurus. In the other plot, the history of Jonathan's family is presented in a novel written by Jonathan. Finally, Alex sends Jonathan a series of letters that highlight his growth as a writer, his increasing skills as a storyteller, and his maturation. This format takes some getting used to (as does Alex's broken English) but the tale is populated by funny, often ridiculous events and characters, all of which becomes very engrossing.

It's when the novel takes a far more serious turn, addressing the nature of the woman in the photograph and Alex's grandfather's relationship to the proceedings, that things become much more complicated, not only because of the bending of fact and fiction but also because of the tendency of the characters to not say entirely what needs to be said. Sure, it's a major theme of the book, but by the end, there feels as if there are a number of threads that have gone unresolved, left incomplete, and the narrative arc becomes mostly lost because of it.

The last 75 pages, rather than being the most engrossing, are the most confusing, slipping into many experimental writing styles (some of which work, some of which don't) and not elucidating much of anything beyond what we already know. It is in this radical deconstruction that the novel loses its force, one that many will find never even appears because of the confusing structure and style of the narrative, especially Alex's language.

At turns humorous and devastating, but also perhaps unnecessarily ponderous, this book will require more patience than it tends to let on, but I'm sure many will find that patience rewarded though tested.
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LibraryThing member ahgonzales
I loved this book. Written as letters between the narrator and his Ukrainian translator, it is a moving story about searching for identity in one's past. While the letters from the translator annoyed me at first, it was only because they were so close to being exactly what you would get if you through a different language into an electronic translator. The character development was phenomenal and I loved how the changes in the writing reflected that. Highly recommended read.… (more)
LibraryThing member Bellenuitoeil
Existentialist superiority at its most intolerable.
LibraryThing member ursula
I'll say it up front: I just didn't like this book, and I'm having trouble expressing exactly why. The main plot revolves around a young American writer (not-so-coincidentally named Jonathan Safran Foer) who goes to the Ukraine to try to find the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. He is accompanied in this task by Alex, a translator whose English skills may be slightly less "premium" than he promised; Alex's grandfather, a driver who claims to be blind; and Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior, an ostensible seeing-eye dog.

The reader is thrown back and forth through time, from the 1790s to the 1940s to whenever the present day of the book is. Also, one is tossed between Alex's letters to Jonathan and Jonathan's book, with forays into other sources from time to time. All of that was fine, although some sections are tedious.

The part that was mostly difficult for me was the smug and self-satisfied voice of Jonathan (the author, as distinct from the character). I'll give you an example: In the first section from Alex, he says that his mother told him, "One day you will do things for me that you hate. That is what it means to be a family." In the next letter we read from Alex, he tells Jonathan, "It makes me happy that you relished the sentence 'One day you will do things for me that you hate. That is what it means to be a family' I must inquire you, however, what is a truism?" It just seems like the trick of a condescending writer to simultaneously single out a great line and call it essentially meaningless. And you can call it postmodern playing with the concept of the novel, the role of characters in it, the relationship between the reader, writer and characters, etc., but it damaged my trust in Foer by making me suspect he thinks he's always the smartest one in the room.

Recommended for: special snowflakes.

Quote: "A map such as that one is worth many hundreds, and as luck will have it, thousands of dollars. But more than this, it is a remembrance of that time before our planet was so small. When this map was made, I thought, you could live without knowing where you were not living."
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LibraryThing member PghDragonMan
If you thought that the movie Borat was uproariously side splitting funny, you will love Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated. It is more of the same.

I was extremely disappointed with this book, especially in comparison to my previous Foer experience, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Both use two stories, related but occurring at different times, told at the same time to explain characters motivations and history. With Everything is Illuminated, this is done to a distraction. This is one of the few examples where I felt the movie was better than the book. The movie concentrated on the present story and left out most of the history lesson. If this book had been edited the same way, it would have succeeded in telling the story much better. Yes, a few flashbacks would still be needed to bring the story together, but this effort was so disjointed, I thought maybe the book was defective and two separated manuscripts had been randomly bound as one volume.

The destination was not worth the journey. The saving grace was the oddity of the characters in the back story. This novel should have been better presented as two books with the two stories separated. Neither would have been great, but separately they would have been better than this one volume was.… (more)

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