EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED

Jonathan Safran Foer, Author
Jonathan Safran Foer, Author . Houghton Mifflin $24 (288p) ISBN 978-0-618-17387-7
Reviewed on: 02/04/2002
Release date: 04/01/2002
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What would it sound like if a foreigner wrote a novel in broken English? Foer answers this question to marvelous effect in his inspired though uneven first novel. Much of the book is narrated by Ukrainian student Alex Perchov, whose hilarious—and, in their own way, pitch-perfect—malapropisms flourish under the influence of a thesaurus. Alex works for his family's travel agency, which caters to Jews who want to explore their ancestral shtetls. Jonathan Safran Foer, the novel's other hero, is such a Jew—an American college student looking for the Ukrainian woman who hid his grandfather from the Nazis. He, Alex, Alex's depressive grandfather and his grandfather's "seeing-eye bitch" set out to find the elusive woman. Alex's descriptions of this "very rigid search" and his accompanying letters to Jonathan are interspersed with Jonathan's own mythical history of his grandfather's shtetl. Jonathan's great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Brod is the central figure in this history, which focuses mostly on the 18th and 19th centuries. Though there are some moments of demented genius here, on the whole the historical sections are less assured. There's a whiff of kitsch in Foer's jolly cast of pompous rabbis, cuckolded usurers and sharp-tongued widows, and the tone wavers between cozy ethnic humor, heady pontification and sentimental magic-realist whimsy. Nonetheless, Foer deftly handles the intricate story-within-a-story plot, and the layers of suspense build as the shtetl hurtles toward the devastation of the 20th century while Alex and Jonathan and Grandfather close in on the object of their search. An impressive, original debut. (Apr. 16)

Forecast:Eagerly awaited since an excerpt was featured in the New Yorker's 2001 "Debut Fiction" issue, Everything Is Illuminated comes reasonably close to living up to the hype. Rights have so far been sold in 12 countries, the novel is a selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club and a main selection of Traditions Book Club, and Foer will embark on an author tour—expect lively sales.

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