Wow. I've been done this book for almost 48 hours and I still am at a loss for words. Wow. This could be my most favorite book of the year but I'm going to put it third. Good non-fiction just impacts me more. But It's easily one of the best works of fiction I've ever read. Definitely, top 20 and maybe top 10. I'd have to think about it and give it some time but it is just incredible.
This book was recommended to me by an incredibly young and pretty library patron. I have a James Bondesque weakness for women which is good in one way. If I'm ever in a situation where someone wants to extract information from me, they don't need to resort to torture at all. Just bring in an attractive woman and I'll break. But that's neither here not there. I mention it because it adds to the story and makes me feel better about myself because I still can entertain and be entertained by good-looking women. So there. I also mention it because she spoke so highly of the author, the tastefully named Jonathan Safran Foer, that I had to look into it (even if it was almost a month after she recommended him to me). If an attractive patron recommends Nora Roberts to me, I'm not going to read her, so maybe my weakness isn't kryptonite-level weakness.
Foer is amazing. This book, Everything is Illuminated, is his first and it was written while Foer was in his early twenties which is mind-boggling in a way and has made Foer the target of numerous spiteful authors and reviewers which is a shame.
The book is based on an actual event in Foer's life. After graduation from college, Foer journeyed to the Ukraine to research the life of his grandfather. Everything is Illuminated is somewhat about the journey and his grandfather.
The most unique aspect of this book is the style of it. There are three separate narratives that go on. One is the narrator's (Foer's) history of his grandfather (and many, many generations before that). The second is the story of Foer's journey as told by his Ukrainian translator. The third is a series of letters written by the translator to Foer discussing the other two narratives (the reader is led to believe that Foer is forwarding the sections of the book he writes to the translator and the translator responds in his letters although you never see any letters by Foer (or the narrator named Foer).
The two sections written by the translator are written in the Ukrainian equivalent of Spanglish (Ukrainglish?) which says a lot about Foer's writing skills. It is so well done. You can tell the translator is intelligent and eager to develop his English skills and there's the combination of the unusual formality that many non-native speakers adopt and mixed up or incomplete idioms.
That's novel but the portion where Foer writes as Foer is even more phenomenal. He has a tremendous gift for words and describes things so well. There are words that when I encountered them I felt that they were extraneous or maybe a Chabon-like ten-cent word but by the end of the sentence, or at worst, paragraph, I felt like the word was perfectly selected.
As I got close to the end, I was preparing for disappointment because I didn't think it could possibly wrap up well. I was wrong. I was left teary-eyed and fulfilled at the end. Again, just amazing.
The book jerks your emotions around. The history of Foer's family is filled with tragedy which even provokes the Ukrainian translator to question why Foer is making it so sad. You're writing it, you can make it whatever you want. You can make happy endings. Foer doesn't. While the Foer part is sad, the Ukrainian portion is witty. Especially the completely unnecessary flatulent dog that belongs to the translator, Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior. Sammy Davis, Jr., Jr. is a perfect example of what I liked about Foer's writing. The dog is absolutely not necessary for the progress of the story. Done poorly, it could be a hindrance to the story and be a noticeably awkward means to generate a few laughs. Foer does it right. The dog, just like the language, flows so wonderfully and fits in perfectly.
I can't recommend this book enough.