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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
* 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.
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.
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.
I am generally very rarely completely disappointed with a book, but this is one of the few occasions when it happened.
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.
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.
Very sad & lyrical. After finishing, I spent the rest of the day moping around the house and looking at the Ukraine map. I think it was wonderfully written, specially due to the change of points of view & the wordplay (two of my sweet spots).
The fable-like history of the shtetl is fantastic (in all senses). And, just like Alex, I wish Brod had a happy ending too. It's uncanny how Jonathan and Alex are alike.