By Jonathan Safran Foer
The hero of the story, bearing the same name as the author, journeys to Ukraine in search of family history connected to his grandfather. His travels are narrated by letters from the guide he hires to help him search for long-lost connections, the guide’s personal recounting of their adventures and misadventures, and the hero’s embellished history of his family tree. The hero and the guide, with support of their blind driver and his seeing-eye dog, set out in search of a village that was decimated by the Nazis and was so small in the first place that only a handful of people remember it by name, even fewer by exact location. Their noble odyssey is full of miscommunication, misunderstanding, and all kinds of cross-cultural mishaps. Despite unpredictable schedules, lost documents (because the seeing-eye dog ate them), and a dearth of vegetarian meals for the hero, their small crew somehow stumbles upon the rich history of the hero’s grandfather. Their personal stories, as with the multiple storylines in the novel, come together in unexpected ways, revealing the deep connection of shared experience even across differences in time, geography, culture and language.
“Everything is Illuminated” by Jonathan Safran Foer is an astounding and fascinating story of all the time and distance people travel to find home. The hero’s search for his family history is complicated by his unwillingness to share his search with certain members of his family (particularly his grandmother), and simultaneously questioned by the guide’s cultural understanding of how families function. This challenges both the hero and the guide to reflect on their motivations and push their boundaries beyond what is comfortable into the area where growth happens. While these reflections and growth opportunities are steeped with the painful nudge of nostalgia and resistance to change, they are lightened by the language barrier and miscommunications during the journey, particularly when the guide narrates their adventures through his letters or in his sections telling about their travels. These interactions feel honest and raw, but without the sense of intimidation that sometimes comes with telling the real weight of experiences and emotions. (Though to be sure, the story carries a lot of weight and you will certainly feel the real emotional impact of that). The hero and the guide are relatable, which, instead of shutting down and shutting off, encourages the reader to stay open to what comes up.
I absolutely love this book because it makes me both laugh and cry (which is clearly an objective indicator of excellent writing). The use of language and wordplay throughout the book is phenomenal to the point that it is almost mind-blowing. The first time I read the book, I was utterly confused by the different storylines, but once I figured it out, it made sense. Subsequent re-readings are even more gratifying because I pick up on more nuances in the separate storylines each time. Well worth your time. Actually, it would be better to read this one sooner rather than later.