Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Everything is Illuminated

Let me start by saying that I enjoyed this freshman novel by Jonathan Safran Foer.  Everything is Illuminated has both an interesting plot and a creative writing style that I enjoyed.  But I cannot call it a great book, and I felt that it just didn't live up to the potential that the best parts of the book promised.

First, the writing style, which requires a little background information on the protagonists.  The story is of a young Jewish American, also named Jonathan Safran Foer, who travels to the Ukraine to find Augustine, the Ukrainian woman who saved his grandfather when the town of Trachimbrod was destroyed in the Holocaust.  To assist with this search he enlists Alex Perchov, a young man about the same age as himself, as his translator.  Since Alex is not able to drive, his "blind" grandfather along with his "seeing-eye bitch" Sammy Davis Junior Junior come along, too.

The story is told in two parts.  First is the magical-realism novel-within-a-novel, telling of the history of Trachimbrod, through the story of character-Jonathan's ancestors.  These sections are written in a highly literary English style, interspersed with letters from Alex that accompany his own novel-within-a-novel.  Alex's style is that of someone who took first-year English, then read a thesaurus.  He tells the actual story of their search for Augustine, and these sections are a pleasure to read.  His misuse and abuse of the English language - trying "rigidly" instead of "hard" to do something, "roosting" instead of "sitting" on a chair... Excerpts can't do it justice, but it's well done.

As for the plot, well, I like the story of character-Jonathan's ancestors.  It is tragic and beautiful and his exploration of love is thought-provoking.  The magic, however, is less well done.  I enjoy magical realism, and wish this novel had not attempted it.  Alex's story of the search for Augustine has some very funny parts mixed in with cliche joke attempts, and then it brings the reader to the precipice of heart-breaking.  But it doesn't take you all the way there.  I was left wishing I could send the last chapters back for a re-write.

So like I said, I enjoyed the book.  I just thought it had the potential to be better. 

Next up: All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren.  A Pulitzer Prize winner that many consider to be the best book written about American politics.  It's election season; call me timely.

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