Everything is Illuminated is Jonathan Safran Foer's first novel. Foer completed a full manuscript of the book while an undergraduate at Princeton under the mentorship of Joyce Carol Oates. Only the core of the novel is based in fact. When he was twenty-one, Foer traveled to Ukraine to research his grandfather's life. His grandfather was from a shtetl called Trachimbrod and, like Safran in the novel, he had only a photograph of the woman who supposedly saved him from the Nazis. Like the character Jonathan, Foer did not tell his grandmother he was returning to Ukraine. But Foer found neither Trachimbrod nor the woman in the photograph during his trip. When Foer returned to Prague, where he was studying at the time, he was inspired to write a fictional work about his experience.
That endeavor stalled because Foer was paralyzed by the question of whether it is befitting, or even possible, to imagine situations related to the Holocaust. Yet, his imagination remained fertile with ideas, and he began Everything is Illuminated as a novel. Foer has said that he wrote it in two and a half weeks and then edited it for two and a half years, working on it more in pieces than as a whole. The result is a stylistically and thematically diverse piece of literature that Foer has described as a "collage."
The novel has been compared with Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior and other contemporary works in that Foer's narrative involves time shifts, different narrative voices, and a melding of fantasy and reality.
The book's stylistic and thematic sophistication earned polarized reviews upon the book's release. Negative reviewers thought the novelist vied too hard for the reader's attention and lacked sufficient maturity, while others took issue with Foer's multifaceted style, calling it disingenuous. But many renowned fiction writers and literary reviewers lauded Foer's inventiveness and whimsy. These included Joyce Carol Oates, Salman Rushdie, and John Updike. Some even called Foer a genius and his work a literary landmark. Since the novel's release, positive reviews have outweighed the negative ones. Foer's freedom with interlocking issues of the Holocaust, sex, guilt, memory, and cultural identity speaks strongly to a sophisticated and open-minded audience.
The novel was adapted for film in 2005 under the direction of Liev Schreiber. In the film, the author plays the character of "Leaf Blower," while Jonathan is played by Elijah Wood and the young Jonathan by Ljubomir Dezera.