By – October 25, 2011

Some­thing as cre­ative as this book does not come along very often. Young author Jonathan Safran Foer, has craft­ed a book of vivid imag­i­na­tion por­trayed through let­ters, sto­ry, and mys­ti­cism. The basic premise involves the search for a woman in a pho­to­graph, who may have saved the author’s grand­fa­ther from the Nazis.

Not writ­ten in tra­di­tion­al chap­ters, the nov­el incor­po­rates sev­er­al for­mats to tell the sto­ry. The first for­mat begins with com­i­cal let­ters and nar­ra­tives from a young Ukrain­ian man who wants to absorb all things Amer­i­can. Fic­tion­al Alex the Ukrain­ian writes to Jonathan Foer, whom he calls the hero,” as Foer search­es for his grandfather’s Ukrain­ian roots. Alex becomes Foer’s Ukrain­ian inter­preter and tour guide. The let­ters are writ­ten in bizarre and fun­ny Eng­lish with phras­es straight out of a the­saurus with com­ic effect. As the Ukrain­ian learns more Eng­lish, his let­ters have more depth. Alex is escort­ed by his own Ukrain­ian grand­fa­ther, whom we learn has haunt­ing WWII secrets. When they are revealed, the words are mes­mer­iz­ing. They rush out in one long fren­zied con­fes­sion and plea, with no peri­ods or com­mas, to high­light the fear and shock of that moment.

The sec­ond for­mat comes from the point of view of Foer as he search­es for his grand­fa­ther and his WWII sav­ior. All he has is an old pho­to­graph and he tries to unrav­el the mys­tery behind the photograph. 

Foer inter­twines this search with an almost mys­ti­cal sto­ry about his grandfather’s vil­lage and the ances­tors of the vil­lage, Tra­chim­brod. Foer, the char­ac­ter, is also writ­ing a nov­el dur­ing the course of the real novel. 

(I know this is con­fus­ing.) There are fable and old-world super­sti­tion and ulti­mate­ly mod­ern tragedy. At some point, it almost takes on the form of dia­logue in a play. As cre­ative as this book is, I found the names (i.e. Brod D, Jacob R) and the sto­ry line hard to fol­low. The peo­ple and places in the vil­lage are some­what con­fus­ing as the sto­ry jumps through time. Only at the end does it make sense. 

Because of the jump between sto­ries and for­mats, it takes a while to get into this book. But once the read­er becomes accus­tomed to the changes in venue and voice, it begins to flow. Foer has a tremen­dous com­mand of the lan­guage. In the Ukrainian’s let­ters, he plays with words, inno­cent­ly adding humor and cyn­i­cism. The let­ters are burst­ing with inven­tive­ness and alone are worth the read.

Dana Adler Rosen is an attor­ney prac­tic­ing mar­itime work­ers’ com­pen­sa­tion law in Nor­folk, Vir­ginia. She is also the asso­ciate book review edi­tor of the South­east­ern Vir­ginia Jew­ish News.

Discussion Questions

From: Houghton Mif­flin 

1. Every­thing Is Illu­mi­nat­ed is a nov­el writ­ten in two voic­es: Alex’s account of the fic­tion­al char­ac­ter Jonathan Safran Foer’s jour­ney to Ukraine, and Jonathan’s mag­i­cal his­to­ry of the vil­lage of his ances­tors. How would you describe these two voic­es? How is the lan­guage dif­fer­ent? In what ways do the two nar­ra­tives inter­sect or diverge? Why do you think the author chose to write the nov­el in this way?

2. On page 1, Alex refers to Jonathan Safran Foer as the hero of this sto­ry.” Is he the hero? Why do you think the author Jonathan Safran Foer chose to give the pro­tag­o­nist of the nov­el his name? Does this deci­sion affect how you read the sto­ry? Would the expe­ri­ence of read­ing Every­thing Is Illu­mi­nat­ed be dif­fer­ent if this char­ac­ter had anoth­er name?

3. Why does Jonathan trav­el to Ukraine? What is he search­ing for? What are Alex and his grand­fa­ther search­ing for on the jour­ney? What does each char­ac­ter find?

4. On page 3, Alex says, I had nev­er met a Jew­ish per­son until the voy­age.” How would you describe Alex’s view of Jew­ish peo­ple? What about his grand­fa­ther’s? Do these views change as the jour­ney progresses?

5. On page 61, refer­ring to his grand­moth­er, Jonathan explains to Alex: I could­n’t even tell her I was com­ing to the Ukraine. She thinks I’m still in Prague.” Why can’t Jonathan tell his grand­moth­er about his trip? Why is it a secret? Which oth­er char­ac­ters have secrets they can­not tell their fam­i­lies? What secrets are con­cealed? What secrets are revealed?

6. Many of the chap­ters are titled Falling in Love.” There are many kinds of love in the novel.On page 83, Jonathan writes about the love between Brod and Yankel: But each was the clos­est thing to a deserv­ing recip­i­ent of love that the oth­er would find. So they gave each oth­er all of it.” How would you describe this love?There is also Jonathan’s love of Augus­tine, the woman he is search­ing for. Alex writes, on page 24, I am cer­tain that I can fath­om it.” In what ways do Jonathan and Alex love Augus­tine? How does Alex’s grand­fa­ther love her?Brod loves the Kolk­er, the man she mar­ries. And there is Safran’s love for the Gyp­sy girl. What oth­er kinds of love are there in the nov­el? How are they sim­i­lar or dif­fer­ent from each other?

7. Many of the review­ers of the book have not­ed the unusu­al and suc­cess­ful use of humor in the nov­el, espe­cial­ly in light of its con­cern with the trag­ic his­to­ry of the Holo­caust. On page 53, Alex writes to Jonathan: Humor is the only truth­ful way to tell a sad sto­ry.” How would you describe the humor in the nov­el? How does it relate to tragedy? What are your feel­ings about using humor in a nov­el that deals with the Holocaust?

8. On page 79, Jonathan writes that Brod would nev­er be hap­py and hon­est at the same time.” And on page 117, Alex, frus­trat­ed by not find­ing Augus­tine, explains that not-truths hung in front of me like fruit. Which could I pick for the hero? Which could I pick for Grand­fa­ther? Which for myself?” What roles do lies and decep­tion play in Every­thing Is Illu­mi­nat­ed? When and why are lies some­times nec­es­sary? When do they hurt either the liar or the ones they lie to?

9. Many things and peo­ple are split in the nov­el: the two nar­ra­tives; the twins, Han­nah and Chana; the Kolk­er, his head lit­er­al­ly split by a saw blade; the Dou­ble-House in Tra­chim­brod. What oth­er dou­bles are there? Why do you think this is such a promi­nent theme in the nov­el? What does it reflect about human nature? How does it relate to the ques­tion of how we write about his­tor­i­cal events, as made clear by the open­ing sen­tence of the sec­ond chap­ter: It was March 18, 1791, when Tra­chim B’s dou­ble-axle wag­on either did or did not pin him against the bot­tom of the Brod River.”

10. On page 154, fol­low­ing the real­iza­tion that he has not found Augus­tine, Alex writes that I per­se­vered to think of her as Augus­tine, because like Grand­fa­ther, I could not stop think­ing of her as Augus­tine.” Why do Alex and his grand­fa­ther refuse to acknowl­edge that the woman they meet is not Augus­tine? Why do they want her to be Augus­tine? Who is the woman really?

11. Guilt is a big theme in Every­thing Is Illu­mi­nat­ed. On page 187, Alex’s grand­fa­ther, respond­ing to the account of the Nazis’ mur­der­ing inno­cent Jews, tells Alex: You would not help some­body if it sig­ni­fied that you would be mur­dered and your fam­i­ly would be mur­dered.” On page 227, Alex’s grand­fa­ther says, I am not a bad per­son. I am a good per­son who has lived in a bad time.” Do you think Alex’s grand­fa­ther did any­thing wrong? Should he feel in any way guilty? If your answers to the two ques­tions are dif­fer­ent, how can that be? Are we respon­si­ble for the bad things that oth­ers do if we do noth­ing to stop them? Should we feel guilty if a fam­i­ly mem­ber did some­thing bad in the past? Can we free our­selves from guilt for past deeds?

12. On pages 265 – 6, Jonathan writes, Every wid­ow wakes one morn­ing, per­haps after years of pure and unwa­ver­ing griev­ing, to real­ize she has slept a good night’s sleep, and will be able to eat break­fast, and does­n’t hear her hus­band’s ghost all the time, but only some of the time.” How do the char­ac­ters in Every­thing Is Illu­mi­nat­ed live their lives in the wake of trag­ic events? How do we both move on and still remem­ber these events? What roles do sto­ries play in rec­on­cil­ing our­selves with the past?

13. Do you con­sid­er the end­ing of the book hope­ful or trag­ic? Why?14. What does the title of the nov­el, Every­thing Is Illu­mi­nat­ed, mean? Does it mean one thing? What things are illu­mi­nat­ed? What is illu­mi­na­tion? What is gained and lost by illumination?