Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

It's disappointing to finally get to a book that I've been meaning to read for a long time... and then feel pretty meh about it. Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything Is Illuminated has lots of the elements that I like, including:

  • A writing style that switches back and forth between contemporary times and a fable about generations of Jewish inhabitants in a shtetl in Ukraine, plus a few odd bits of letters and old book excerpts thrown in. 
  • People searching for their roots
  • Family secrets revealed
  • Jewish experience in the Holocaust
  • Eastern European setting
  • Dialogue in nonstandard English
  • Humour 

But somehow, it just didn't work for me. Sometimes, when a book flips back and forth between narratives, one captures my interest more than the other. In this case, I found annoying elements in both of the main story strands. Alex, the modern Ukrainian guide and translator, uses English in a way that manufactures sense, so it isn't rigid to know what he signifies, but it spleened me anyway. It was tiresome. And I found the historical fable unpleasantly preposterous, rather than whimsical. A husband and wife, for example, "fought so much to remind ourselves that we were in love and not in hate." Both the family violence and the rampant sex were too much for me.

There were parts that made me smile, like: "Jews are those things that God loves. Since roses are beautiful we must assume that God loves them. Therefore we must assume that roses are Jewish."

Even though I usually like a combination of humour and pathos, in this case the horrors were jarring against the slapstick. If it would have been the print book instead of an audiobook, I don't think I even would have got to the end. I kept thinking, just one more CD, maybe it will get better. 11.45 hours later, I did appreciate the conclusion as well as the overall way the novel was constructed. I also liked the two narrators of the Recorded Books edition, Jeff Woodman and Scott Shina, who helped pull me through when I found the story itself a slog. 

This is a rare case where I might like the movie better than the book... if I ever get around to watching it.


Claire G said...

I enjoyed the movie! Haven't read the book, however. My enjoyment of the DVD was probably helped by the fact that it was an impulse buy at a secondhand store and we had no idea what it was until we watched it. (The title rang a bell, but I still didn't click.)

Lindy said...

Claire, it's good to know that the movie is enjoyable. Thanks!