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Everything is Illuminated
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1001 book reviews > Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

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Gail (gailifer) | 1534 comments I read Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer as part of my 2018 TBR challenge for June.

Foer is well known for his second novel, the cinematic Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, but this first novel of Foer's is just as quirky with a finer balance, to my mind, of personal storytelling and the love of language. In many ways this book is about how to write a novel and have it reflect something approximating truth. There are two narrators, one is named "the hero" through much of the book but his given name is Jonathan Safran Foer, the same name as the actual author. The other narrator is Alex, often called Sasha, who is a tour guide for "the hero". The hero is an America who hopes to find someone central to his father's life and write about it and Sasha hopes to travel to America and looks forward to having a contact in that country. Each of these narrators are also writing the story that we are reading through letters to each other and shared parts of their writing. This complicated weave of narration outlines a story that takes place over 100's of years and multiple generations but it is rarely told chronologically or in a straightforward way. Somehow it all works in the oddest way as the reader learns a number of intimate and personally detailed stories wrapped up in an outlandish village mythology about sad people going through sad times. We are slowly lead to the realization that the tour guide with his straight forward desire for Jonathan Safran Foer to write a happy ending is truly the hero of the book when he steps out and takes control of his life.


Valerie Brown | 645 comments Read Feb. 2020

In the end, I can say I enjoyed this book, but I feel generous giving it 3.5*. As most other reviewers mention, Alex is the stand-out character. I loved his voice of a non-native English speaker’s English translations. I also really liked how he grew (as a person) throughout the novel; and these parts, along with his Grandfather’s story are the most powerful parts (and worthwhile) of the book. However, the rest of the novel (which is a larger portion) just wasn’t up to the level of the Alex story. It was too self consciously written, and often not very interesting or compelling. This was my second Foer novel, and probably my last.


Book Wormy | 2078 comments Mod
4 stars

I really enjoyed this new take on the holocaust novel, the way the story is told in 3 overlapping narratives is unique and plays on the idea that history is unreliable and sometimes a story is better than the actual facts. It also highlights that good people do bad things and that because they are good people the bad things haunt them.

The absurd humour in the novel really appealed to me and several instances had me laughing to myself. The way Alex uses English was so amusing even as his skilled developed I loved seeing what he would write next.

This book really plays with the unreliable narrator trope in the sense that everyone in the story is unreliable from “blind” grandfather the chauffeur who has kept his past hidden, to Alex who is writing his own version of Safran’s visit and finally to Safran who is rewriting the story of his past as a work of fiction. Nothing is true so everything is true.

This won’t be for everyone you need the right sense of humour and you need to be able to gloss over (or enjoy) all the sexual shenanigans (of which there are many, described in great detail).


message 4: by Pip (new) - rated it 3 stars

Pip | 1478 comments I remember the buzz when this novel was published and so I looked forward to reading it. I was quite surprised to find the beginning really indigestible and it was a struggle to persevere. It began with a magic realism type of description of an Ukrainian village in the late eighteenth century with a Jewish perspective which I found quite difficult to follow. This was interposed with a modern day English student in Ukraine with a shaky grasp of English. It reminded me of Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat, but I discovered that it was written some four years beforehand, so Baron Cohen may have stolen some ideas from this novel rather than the other way round, which is what I thought as I read it. The humour was very heavyhanded and I didn't find it as funny as many reviewers seem to have. The conceit that a young student, also named Jonathan Safran Foer, travels to the Ukraine to see if he can find a woman who was supposed to have saved his grandfather from the Nazis was quite novel, and apparently somewhat autobiographical. The Ukrainian student, Alex, ends up as his guide and translator. JSF returns to the US and Alex, whose English gradually improves (thankfully) writes a series of letters to JSF, explaining what has happened. I found the story more interesting as the generations of the family get closer to the time of JSF's grandfather, and the story of Alex's grandfather is also explained. It left many questions in my mind. Was it Alex's grandfather or father who was abusing his younger brother? If the woman they met (and it was unclear how they tracked her down) was not the Augustine of the photo which JSF brings to the Ukraine as his only clue, then who was she? Why was the grandfather constantly described as blind, when he was the one driving the car? If this was supposed to be amusing, it was lost on me.


Kristel (kristelh) | 4256 comments Mod
I read this in 2011; Everything is Illuminated b y Jonathan Safran Foer is a debut novel published in 2002. The protagonist, named Jonathan Safran Foer, travels to the Ukraine to see if he can find the woman that saved his grandfather's life from the Nazis. It is a fragmented work, with part of it a work in progress by Foer that is quite magical or mythological about the shtetl, Trachimbrod and the actual story of the search for the woman as told by the English translator, Alex. Alex's use of the English language is delightful and humorous because of the words he chooses to use in his sentences. This is another holocaust story but told a little differently. It has elements of magical realism and it looks backward through the lives of the Ukrainian family that was also hurt by the what happened to the Jews. I thought the sexual vulgarity of the novel was a little much and could have done without. I do plan to watch the movie. (my review). I did watch the movie.


Ginny | 122 comments Oh dear, this book was just not for me. Having read through other reviews I was surprised to hear it described as humourous, if there was laughter to be had sadly it was lost on me.

I found the disjointed writing style a real struggle to get through and almost gave up on it more than once. Alex is by far the best character and it was only his story that was in any way compelling. One-third of the book is devoted to retelling the history of Trachimbrod, which I found hard to follow for the most part, pretty boring and in the end not all that relevant.

However, the talent of the author really does shine through when he tells the tragic stories of Not-Augustine and Grandfather/Hershal, those parts of the book were very moving and in the end, made this book worth reading. But it wasn't going to get another star out of me, for only about 400 words of good writing in an otherwise tedious book.


Daisey | 272 comments I found this book to be a strange mix of funny and heartbreakingly sad with plenty of weird (including the sexual shenanigans mentioned in one of the previous reviews and the "blind" driver). It's about family and friends and the lasting impact of war, in this case, the atrocities of the Holocaust. I enjoyed Alex's translated to English stories the most, but I came to appreciate all of the story and how it was woven together by the end. I'm not sure I quite consider the ending satisfying, but overall I enjoyed the book.


Diane Zwang | 1314 comments Mod
3 stars

I read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by the author and loved it. I was looking forward to this book but it did not live up to my expectations. There were periods in the book I loved, Brod and her father and Alexander's humor but overall the book did not come together for me. I agree with Pip and Ginny on this one.


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