A Jewish American named Jonathan Safran Foer enlists the services of a Ukrainian company called Heritage Tours, which specializes in showing wealthy Americans the places where their families came from. Heritage Tours is run by 3 generations of men named Alexander Perchov, but the story focuses on the grandfather and the grandson, named Alex. Jonathan (called "Jonfen" by Alex) hopes to find the village of Trachimbrod where his grandfather lived, but the journey will be much longer than he could have imagined. Despite sharing a name with the author, the story is fictitious.
The book was written by Jonathan Safran Foer, but we do not hear much from the fictional character of Jonathan. Instead, we read letters from Alex to Jonathan, who includes passages of the book he is writing about his trip with Jonathan and information about his current life, as well as the research that Jonathan is doing on the past of Trachimbrod. The movie deals much less with the history of Trachimbrod and instead focuses on the journey that is taken through Ukraine.
The book and movie take different turns plotwise, but both play with ideas of reality and the fluidity of time, mainly how the past is always with us. Both blend humor, often derived from the stark differences in culture and Alex's odd English, and dark tragedy. Touching, sad, and hilarious, both the novel and film of Everything Is Illuminated received positive reviews.
Everything Is Illuminated contains examples of:
- Ambiguously Gay: In the book, Alex reveals that he is not actually The Casanova he has led us to believe and that when he tells his family he is out at dance clubs, he actually goes to the beach alone (to save money). The women he claims to have met in these clubs are fictional. His questions to Jonathan about whether there are homosexual accountants in America may mean he is in the closet.
- Arc Words: In the book, "I will... I will..."
- Author Avatar: Jonathan Safran Foer shares his name with the main character, although the book is not a true story
- Big Brother Mentor: Alex to his little brother Igor, though he gives him pretty bad informationAlex: [voice over]This is my miniature brother, Igor. I am tutoring him to be a man of this world. For an example, I exhibited him a smutty magazine three days yore.Igor: Why is it dubbed sixty-nine?Alex: [voice over] I explain it to him that this is because it was invented in the year 1969. I know this because my friend Grisha knows a friend of the nephew of the inventor.Igor: What did people do before 1969?Alex: [voice over] He is a genius, my miniature brother. He will be made a VIP if I have a thing to do with it.
- The Casanova: What Alex first claims to be in the book, what he actually is in the movie
- Collector of the Strange: Jonathan gathers tons of odd and seemingly random things, puts them in plastic bags, and hangs them on the wall and it is revealed that Trachimbrod survives through a similar collection.
- Culture Clash
- Dark and Troubled Past: In the book Alex's grandfather was forced to point out his Jewish best friend to the Nazis, leading to his death, in the movie Alex's grandfather was a Jew and pretended to be dead in order to escape. His village was destroyed.
- Dark Secret
- Does This Remind You of Anything?: Elijah Wood on an epic journey that ends with him being given a special ring by a mysterious old person?
- Driven to Suicide: Alex's grandfather
- Eagleland: Alex tends to romanticize America. In the book, it is more because he wants a different life for himself and for his brother
- Epistolary Novel
- Europeans Are Kinky: One of the deleted scenes from the movie showcases Alex's sexual prowess
- Fee Fi Faux Pas: Jonathan speaking English to a group of Ukranian workers. Alex using outdated terms like "negro".
- Film of the Book
- First Law of Tragicomedies
- Funny Foreigner: Alex and his family to Jonathan, Jonathan to Alex
- Immigrant Patriotism: Despite still living in Kiev, Alex has a fascination with American culture
- Innocent Bigot: While Alex is certainly not racist, he doesn't realize that "negro" is a very outdated term. He also mentions that he thinks rich Jewish Americans "are having shit between their brains" although he changes his mind about this.
- Jewish and Nerdy: Jonathan, especially in the movie. Avoided with Alex, who is revealed to be Jewish in the movie
- Child Prodigy: How Alex views his younger brother Igor. Igor's a fairly bright boy but Alex sees him as brilliant because Alex often lacks common sense
- Macguffin: Played with. In the movie, Alex translates the comments of the last survivor of Trachimbrod, saying that the ring belonging to Jonathan's first wife Augustine "does not exist for you. You exist for it. You have come because it exists. [You] are here because of the ring.
- Malaproper: Alex seems to have learned most of his English from a thesaurus, leading him to say things like "premium" instead of "good" or "talented", "rigid" for "difficult", "repose" or "making zs" for "sleep" Also, when Jonathan says "I spent twenty-six hours on the train, fucking unbelievable!", Alex narrates "This girl Unbelievable must be very majestic, I thought."
- Mysterious Past: Alex's grandfather; to some degree Jonathan
- Odd Friendship: Alex and Jonathan form a very close bond as a result of their journeys. It is also mentioned that had circumstances been slightly different—had Jonathan's grandfather never left Ukraine—the two would have had far more similar lives, although they probably would have never met.
- Road Trip Plot
- War Is Hell: The book does a great job in showcasing the horrors of war. Lista´s story about how the nazis stormed Trachimbrod and mercilessly killed her family is nothing short of gut-wrenching. Meanwhile, Grandfather's story about how he had to betray his best friend in order to save the life of his wife and son is also a bone-chilling tale. Then there's the part about how Brod foresaw all the Trachimbroders running away from falling bombs to the river and helplessly drowning themselves in the process.
- Write Who You Know: The story might be made up but Foer's still in it.