Sunday, December 12, 2010

"Everything is Illuminated" by Jonathan Safran Foer

Summary:  An American (also) named Jonathan Safran Foer has traveled to Austria with an aged picture depicting his grandfather with Augustine, the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis.  With the help of his translator Alex and his driver, Alex's grandfather, Jonathan begins a hunt for Augustine.  But this is not a novel that is told chronologically or with a traditional narrative structure.  Instead, the story is recounted through Alex's letters to Jonathan after the trip and Alex's own recreation of the narrative, as well as through Jonathan's fictional recreation of his family's history.

Musings: Everything is Illuminated is a very different book--one that, in the beginning, I thought I would hate, but in the end, found difficult to put down.  It's a strange combination of the humorous and the tragic, of the real and the not-real, and the in between.  It's a book that makes you see life's moments as simultaneous and muddled, and it makes me want to write in run-on sentences.

Alex is a fascinating narrator, and he transforms from hiding in bragging and joking to the most thoughtful character in the novel.  He is only partially fluent in English, and he over-uses a thesaurus, so his letters are often a funny mix of pidgin English.  I worried the book would lean too heavily on a "haha, look at his strange English," but that really isn't the case at all.  Alex and Jonathan's early conversations also provide a lot of humor as they struggle to understand and communicate with one another.

Jonathan's fictional narrative of his family has a folksy, magical realism style to it, which initially turned me off (I think I'm still prejudiced against the style from reading One Hundred Years of Solitude), but was essential to the mood and feeling of the novel at its end.

As one review I read put it, Everything is Illuminated is, at its most simple, a story about the Holocaust, but that barely begins to encapsulate the novel.  It's a story about love and memories and the ability to see oneself clearly.  It's a book that has so many interwoven parts that it demands a reread but still feels satisfying once finished.  It's a book that made me laugh out loud and cry.

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