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Everything Is Illuminated: A Novel Paperback – April 1, 2003

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

The simplest thing would be to describe Everything Is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer's accomplished debut, as a novel about the Holocaust. It is, but that really fails to do justice to the sheer ambition of this book. The main story is a grimly familiar one. A young Jewish American--who just happens to be called Jonathan Safran Foer--travels to the Ukraine in the hope of finding the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. He is aided in his search by Alex Perchov, a naïve Ukrainian translator, Alex's grandfather (also called Alex), and a flatulent mongrel dog named Sammy Davis Jr. Jr. On their journey through Eastern Europe's obliterated landscape they unearth facts about the Nazi atrocities and the extent of Ukrainian complicity that have implications for Perchov as well as Safran Foer. This narrative is not, however, recounted from (the character) Jonathan Safran Foer's perspective. It is relayed through a series of letters that Alex sends to Foer. These are written in the kind of broken Russo-English normally reserved for Bond villains or Latka from Taxi. Interspersed between these letters are fragments of a novel by Safran Foer--a wonderfully imagined, almost magical realist, account of life in the shtetl before the Nazis destroyed it. These are in turn commented on by Alex, creating an additional metafictional angle to the tale.

If all this sounds a little daunting, don't be put off; Safran Foer is an extremely funny as well as intelligent writer who combines some of the best Jewish folk yarns since Isaac Bashevis Singer with a quite heartbreaking meditation on love, friendship, and loss. --Travis Elborough, Amazon.co.uk --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

What would it sound like if a foreigner wrote a novel in broken English? Foer answers this question to marvelous effect in his inspired though uneven first novel. Much of the book is narrated by Ukrainian student Alex Perchov, whose hilarious and, in their own way, pitch-perfect malapropisms flourish under the influence of a thesaurus. Alex works for his family's travel agency, which caters to Jews who want to explore their ancestral shtetls. Jonathan Safran Foer, the novel's other hero, is such a Jew an American college student looking for the Ukrainian woman who hid his grandfather from the Nazis. He, Alex, Alex's depressive grandfather and his grandfather's "seeing-eye bitch" set out to find the elusive woman. Alex's descriptions of this "very rigid search" and his accompanying letters to Jonathan are interspersed with Jonathan's own mythical history of his grandfather's shtetl. Jonathan's great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Brod is the central figure in this history, which focuses mostly on the 18th and 19th centuries. Though there are some moments of demented genius here, on the whole the historical sections are less assured. There's a whiff of kitsch in Foer's jolly cast of pompous rabbis, cuckolded usurers and sharp-tongued widows, and the tone wavers between cozy ethnic humor, heady pontification and sentimental magic-realist whimsy. Nonetheless, Foer deftly handles the intricate story-within-a-story plot, and the layers of suspense build as the shtetl hurtles toward the devastation of the 20th century while Alex and Jonathan and Grandfather close in on the object of their search. An impressive, original debut. (Apr. 16)Forecast: Eagerly awaited since an excerpt was featured in the New Yorker's 2001 "Debut Fiction" issue, Everything Is Illuminated comes reasonably close to living up to the hype. Rights have so far been sold in 12 countries, the novel is a selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club and a main selection of Traditions Book Club, and Foer will embark on an author tour expect lively sales.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 276 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (April 1, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060529709
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060529703
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (588 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #8,180 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Jonathan Safran Foer is the author of the bestseller Everything Is Illuminated, named Book of the Year by the Los Angeles Times and the winner of numerous awards, including the Guardian First Book Prize, the National Jewish Book Award, and the New York Public Library Young Lions Prize. Foer was one of Rolling Stone's "People of the Year" and Esquire's "Best and Brightest." Foreign rights to his new novel have already been sold in ten countries. The film of Everything Is Illuminated, directed by Liev Schreiber and starring Elijah Wood, will be released in August 2005. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close has been optioned for film by Scott Rudin Productions in conjunction with Warner Brothers and Paramount Pictures. Foer lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Customer Reviews

The language is acceptable, but the book is boring & stereotypes used are just too much.
Anna Lutzky
As I kept reading I couldn't help but keep wondering "when is this book gonna get good?" but almost 100 pages in I noticed that it still hadn't.
The translator's story is incredibly funny, and Foer demonstrates a marvelous mastery of the English language to be able to mangle it so well.
Elizabeth Hendry

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

284 of 329 people found the following review helpful By Shashank Tripathi on October 18, 2003
Format: Paperback
Foer is a pretty endearing writer, no doubt, and one who is already on my watch list. But this novel is not something I'd be seen heaping praises on, as several other reviewers have been.
The book's narrative is inventive, mildly funny (depending on your sense of humor) and occasionally even strewn with streaks of universal wisdom. But some of Foer's devices of story telling seem a little, er, affected.
The lead-in into the novel is a bit wobbly and I took time to warm up to the goings-on -- in reality, the it is a tapestry of SEVERAL stories, the prime theme being one of a young American Jew named Jonathan Safran Foer (eponymous as the author, note) who travels to the Ukraine searching for the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis in 1941. We read of his search through the eyes of his Ukrainian guide and translator, Alex, whose imperfect English provides comic relief.
Part of the story of Jonathan's search is told in straightforward prose, but part is told through letters from Alex. Other stories are told in dreams or in plays. Concurrently, we also get the story of several of Jonathan's forbears, going as far back as 1791.
Much of the novel's humor stems from Alex's under-developed English and his posturing antics. Such comic relief is deft, but the all too frequent flights of lyricism stink of affectation to me, not of staggeringly impressive command of language or anything. Foer is no Wodehouse, not yet.
Everything Is Illuminated is ultimately more of an experience than a book, an episodic, thoughtful and rewarding work. But perhaps you may want to start with a fresh slate instead of a baggage of high expectations, a mistake I made. It is not worthy of a pedestal, but definitely worth a read if only for the sheer boldness of the narrative. Pick it up!
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119 of 138 people found the following review helpful By Sirin on November 21, 2005
Format: Paperback
Somewhere, buried in Everything is Illuminated is a poignant, moving, original story about a man searching for the woman who saved his Grandfather from the Nazis. Aiding him in his search is the most endearing character in the novel, Alex, who writes English by always searching for a thesaurus term to replace the plain original word - resulting in a highly entertaining brand of comically prolix English. This device is the best narration technique in the novel (although not, as many critics in the blurb claim, a linguistic achievement on a par with Burgess in A Clockwork Orange).

The rest of the novel, however, is taken up with an aggressive array of flashy modern narrative devices - magic realism, hysterical realism, Jewish confession etc., all of which blast the reader with great 'look at me' demonstrations of the writer's virtuosity, but lack any sense of pacing, rhythm, balance and poise.

The principal gripe I have with modern novels such as this, is that in such a competitive, overcrowded market, young writers feel pressured to burst out with something dazzling and innovative, often invoking a range of literary techniques (as Foer does) without really understanding how they can be used most effectively. If the New York publishing scene was less preoccupied with hyping up flashy new bestsellers, and let talented young writers develop slowly, modern novels might have a chance to display some of the quiet literary inspiration that is the hallmark of past masterpieces.
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98 of 114 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on April 23, 2002
Format: Hardcover
This is in many ways a brilliant book, brimming with energy and invention. Foer is blessed with enormous talent and I have no trouble at all imagining him becoming, in time, one of the major writers of the dawning century. This book, however, is not an unqualified success.
In a way Foer was betrayed by the very reviewers who were somersaulting backwards in order to help him. I was expecting the book to be utterly hilarious but the effect fizzled because the reviewers had already related the best jokes. He was betrayed by them also in the sense that they built such unreasonable expectations into the minds of readers that it would be difficult not to disappoint. Foer only adds to the trouble through his hyper-ambitious title. No, everything is NOT illuminated by reading this book. The themes are a recycling of things I've heard before, very often in places like Hollywood movies. To praise the virtues of love and compassion is not illuminating: it may be true, but it is not new. Foer has his heart in the right place, but that may be part of the problem. I get the sense that he is trying too hard to please. There is nothing wrong with giving your reader pleasure (God knows so few writers even know how) but in order truly to illuminate, in order to allow the reader to walk away with his world in some way changed, one must be ready to challenge, and perhaps even, to insult. Perhaps the success of this novel will embolden Foer to take off the kid gloves and hit us hard the way that, say, Philip Roth does.
I don't agree with the reviewers who complained that Alex's English is either unrealistic ("no Ukranian would speak English that way") or offensive.
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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Mary Whipple HALL OF FAMETOP 100 REVIEWER on November 24, 2005
Format: Paperback
The eccentric and attention-seeking graphics of the bookjacket convey the idea that this book is fresh, daring, kooky, and inventive--and the book is all these things! But it is also serious and thoughtful, touching on universal themes and the essence of what makes us human. With young "heroes" who are sometimes both earnest and sweetly vulnerable, the book contains moments of profound melancholy, as well as deep sadness, behind its bravado and its finger-snapping brio.

Jonathan Safran Foer, a character bearing the same name as the author, is looking for the woman he believes saved his grandfather Safran from the Nazis. Traveling to the Ukraine, he meets Alex Perchov, a young man representing a Ukrainian travel agency which specializes in taking tourists to the sites of vanished shetls. Alex, a not-quite-fluent translator, and his "blind" grandfather, who serves as the driver, travel with Jonathan to the site of Trachimbrod, his family's village, collecting stories and legends which will help Jonathan learn about his family and his Ukrainian Jewish heritage.

Parts of the book are a bit sophomoric. (How many farting dog jokes does one need? And do we really need to know the details of Grandfather Safran's 132 mistresses?) The fictional Jonathan's letters and comments as he writes a novel about his trip are an artificial device for dealing, perhaps, with the author's uncertainties and/or heading off criticism, while the chapters he includes for Alex's review, are, of course, the actual chapters of this book. And Alex's misuse of language, while often very funny, begins to pall after numerous repetitions.
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