On the surface, Everything is Illuminated is the tale of a young man’s search for the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis, a woman who is known only through a grainy photograph and caption which reads, “Augustine.”
Jonathan Safran Foer is that young man, a college student who coincidentally possesses the same name as the author, leaving the reader only to speculate about just how much is fact and fiction as Foer braves both Eastern Europe and his Jewish past. His translator is Alex, a Ukrainian student whose English skills are dubious at best, and his driver is Alex’s grandfather, also named Alex, whose bitterness as he mourns the death of his wife can only be lifted by his “seeing-eye bitch,” the dog named Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior. The dog, named after the Rat Pack singer, is a humorous presence for the way she continually licks the hands and other body parts of her human friends.
Humor seems to be an appropriate way to tell a very dark tale. Everything Is Illuminated begins with the arrival of a little girl, Brod, to the town of Trachimbrod, Ukraine in 1791, her blossoming into a young woman, and her turbulent marriage to a foreigner, the Kolker, whose love for his wife is greatly challenged as he slowly goes insane on account of an accident.
Trachimbrod’s later citizens are similarly haunted by love. This can be seen through Brod’s grandson (also named Foer) and the woman Augustine, who both must overcome many hurdles as they fight for love, and also against the evil from outside the little village in the form of the slowly approaching Nazis.
The older Foer must mature into his new role as a loving husband, one far removed from his playboy days, and Augustine has to forge a new future after her family is destroyed by the Nazis.
Yet instead of dwelling on all of the town’s misfortunes, the author instead chooses to focus on the way his characters change over time. You’ll come to love young Alex just as I did for the way he overcomes both his father’s and his grandfather’s temperamental presence to become a better person, and the character development seen in the interactions between Brod and her husband is similarly intriguing.
Alternating between the younger Alex’s letters to Foer written in broken English and Foer’s flowery descriptions of his family’s former village, the author slowly weaves history into his story of love’s mysteries, all of which are delicately concluded in the end. Everything is Illuminated is a brilliantly constructed book, which has made me realize more than ever that modern books can be just as powerful as those that were written generations before.