Previously, I read Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and I thought it fantastic. Consequently, I read Foer's books in reverse order. I did not enjoy Everything is Illuminated as much as I had hoped I would.
The author conjures three different wisps of a story: the first involves letters sent from Alex, a Ukrainian teenager working in his father's tour business, to Foer. The second comprises Alex's recounting of Foer's quest to discover his grandfather's origins in the shtetl of Trachimbrod. These two strains succeed well, driven mainly by Alex's strange yet systematic errors in English because of his abuse of a thesaurus. As Alex comments, "I fatigued the thesaurus you presented me, as you counseled me to, when my words appeared petite, or not befitting." The third strain didn't appeal to me at all. Foer tries to invoke a kind of magical realist history of Trachimbrod, of his grandfather, and of his ancestors. I found it weak. I inevitably wanted to read past these sections to arrive at the sections when Alex wrote his letters, or wrote his own stories for Foer. The third strain made it seem like Foer was trying to be clever, trying to ruminate too obviously on themes of memory, dream, and sexuality. Consequently, I did not enjoy Everything is Illuminated as much as I enjoyed Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
That said, in conversing with my wife about this book we found the humour and poignancy conveyed by Alex's sections to have achieved their intentions - we both laughed out loud while reading Alex's sections of the book. I would have given this book four stars had I not become so annoyed with the sections on Trachimbrod's history.