Skip to main content

A Book Review of "Everything Is Illuminated" by Jonathan Safran Foer

Mike Grindle is an online writer who enjoys helping others understand literature.

"Everything Is Illuminated" by Jonathan Safran Foer

"Everything Is Illuminated" by Jonathan Safran Foer

A Work of Genius or Pretentiousness?

Everything Is Illuminated throws caution to the wind in its search for the whimsical, the nuanced, and the magnificent, often stumbling into overachievement along the way. Comprising two autobiographical accounts, Everything Is Illuminated sets out to blend fact and fiction in new and unique ways, with Jonathan Safran Foer himself taking a significant role within the story. The narrative switches between different timelines. The further back we go, the more abstract things get.

Foer is unconcealed in his love of all things sentimental, and at times his musings have an exquisite and fairytale-like quality to them. The story of a newborn girl emerging from a lake and the melancholic relationship she forms with her step-father end up making for some intriguing reading.

There are passages within this book so brilliant that they force you to stop and take stock. However, Foer goes to the well far too often in his venture for sentiment, with tales of a young adolescent sleeping with every widow of his shtetl and astronauts observing the "glow" of people making love from space coming across as contrived and fatuous. Many of the characters, too, are just so cloying and self-indulgent that they honestly begin to grate on you.

While Foer over-indulges in these tales of eras gone, the story and its characters become more well-rounded when he brings us back to modern times. It is here, too, that Foer shows us a knack for humor, often stemming from his dealings with Alexander "Alex" Perchov and his grandfather. Alex is easily the most likable and grounded character in the book, both as Foer's unreliable translator and our unreliable narrator for one half of the book. His character's progression and gradual opening up feels like the most natural thing within the novel.

The fable-like feel of the past against the more real-feeling present that Foer creates here makes for an interesting contrast. It seems intentional and will be familiar to those who have read Foer's follow-up, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, where Foer again blends magic with the mundane.

But more than that, no unloving words were ever spoken, and everything was held up as another small piece of proof that it can be this way, it doesn't have to be that way; if there is no love in the world, we will make a new world, and we will give it heavy walls, and we will furnish it with soft red interiors, from the inside out, and give it a knocker that resonates like a diamond falling to a jeweller's felt so that we should never hear it.

— Jonathan Safran Foer, "Everything Is Illuminated"

In the Author's Own Words

The Verdict

In truth, Everything is illuminated sometimes reads like a misguided teen's unsent love letter, with Foer throwing every modern literacy device he can onto the page to the point that the novel is soaked through in cutesy sentiment. However, it also has its moments of brilliance, and in today's overly ironic and post-modern world, you have to give Foer credit for pulling no punches.

Other Reviews

  • "Everything is illuminated is a richly rewarding novel that takes the reader through a gauntlet of emotions. Both the laughter and the tears seem an inadequate response to a novel of this much reach and daring." —Rob Cline of Book Reporter
  • "Safran Foer's American journey led from celebration in the literary pages to public sniping from some book-buyers who found it impenetrable or pretentious. But, as Alex might put it, any far-reaching reader will fornicate with this tract. They will transport it to their nerve centers. And Foer has set himself a rigid stage performance to walk behind." —Mark Lawson of The Guardian

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Mike Grindle


Mike Grindle (author) on August 10, 2020:

I would agree that they're very similar, though I enjoyed Extremely Loud and Incredibly close more.

Rose McCoy on August 08, 2020:

I read his book “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.” It seemed like it was a really good book, but it took so much brain power to comprehend that in the end I gave up on it! It sounds like “Everything is Illuminated” is sort of the same—would you agree?