Everything is Illuminated chronicles a young, Jewish-American writer's attempt to research his grandfather's life in Ukraine. Jonathan, who has the same name as the book's author, is attempting to find his grandfather's shtetl, Trachimbrod. He has only a few maps and a photograph of a woman named Augustine, who is said to have saved his grandfather from the Nazis. Jonathan's guide on his trip is Alex, a young Ukrainian man. They are both twenty-one. Their driver is Alex's grandfather, who claims to be blind. Accompanying the men is Grandfather's seeing-eye dog, Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior.
The novel is comprised by three basic narratives: chapters written by Jonathan, chapters written by Alex, and letters from Alex to Jonathan. Chapters written by Jonathan describe different events in his family's history in Trachimbrod. Chapters written by Alex describe Jonathan's present trip. Letters from Alex to Jonathan reveal the two characters' growing relationship as writers and friends.
Chapters written by Jonathan
In 1791, a wagon supposedly belonging to a man named Trachim B crashes into a river. Trachim B dies, though a newborn baby survives. From then on, the lore of Trachimbrod revolves around the incident. Every year, they celebrate Trachimday and recreate the accident as part of the festivities. The people of Trachimbrod live simple lives, unconcerned with the government. They are divided into the Uprighters, who are more traditional, and the Slouchers, who are more secular. The shtetl itself is divided into the Jewish Quarter and the Human Three-Quarters. Recording memories and dreams is an integral part of Trachimbrod's culture.
We trace the lives of several of Jonathan's ancestors, primarily Brod and Safran. Brod is the baby who rose from the river, and she is reputedly Jonathan's great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother. She is adopted by Yankel. On the night Yankel dies, Brod meets the Kolker. Shortly after the two marry, the Kolker gets a disc saw lodged in his head at the flour mill. He survives but becomes violent and abusive to Brod as a result of his injury. Before he dies, he tells Brod that Yankel is not her real father. When the Kolker dies, his body is bronzed and erected as a statue in the town square. It serves as a sundial and good luck symbol until Trachimbrod is destroyed. Jonathan's grandfather, Safran, visits the statue on his wedding day to pray for good luck.
Safran has a lame arm, which women find very attractive. Therefore, he is extremely promiscuous from a young age. He is unable to have an orgasm, so he develops a reputation as a long-lasting lover. Although he wants to be with his longtime Gypsy lover, Safran marries Zosha in an arranged marriage--but cheats on her with her sister at the reception. On Zosha's and Safran's wedding night, Safran has his first orgasm, and the newlyweds conceive a child. This child is the only thing Safran is really capable of loving. Soon after, Trachimbrod is destroyed by the Nazis. Most of the townspeople, including Zosha and the baby, die in the river. The others are burned alive in the synagogue. Only Safran manages to escape. He is saved by a woman named Augustine, but he dies soon after reaching America.
Chapters written by Alex
Jonathan is the first Jew Alex ever meets. As he writes, Alex uses a thesaurus Jonathan gave him. This tool, combined with his limited knowledge of the English language, makes his narratives charmingly ungrammatical; Alex uses words strangely.
Alex and Grandfather work for Heritage Touring. They pick Jonathan up at the train station, and from then on, they try to help him find Trachimbrod and Augustine. At first, Alex and Grandfather are uninterested in Jonathan's plans. But they fall in love with the photograph of Augustine, and they soon want to find her as much as he does. These chapters are full of comedy involving cultural misunderstandings and incidents involving the deranged Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior. The men set out to find Trachimbrod, but the dog has eaten Jonathan's maps and no one has heard of the shtetl. They exhaust themselves asking different people for help, to no avail.
Eventually, they stop in front of a decrepit house. A woman sits on the steps, and without knowing why, Alex talks to her forcefully, convinced she can help them. Finally, she reveals that she is the last remaining survivor from Trachimbrod. In her house, she keeps all of the objects salvaged from its residents. The men feel convinced that she is Augustine, but they soon learn that she is not. She knew Jonathan's grandfather, however. Grandfather starts being very rude to her when she begins to pull out photographs and tell stories about them. He is especially angry when she shows a picture of two men named Herschel and Eli. She says that Eli had to shoot Herschel so that the Nazis would not shoot him.
The woman leads the men to Trachimbrod, which is now a deserted field. She tells them the story of how the Nazis brutally murdered all the townspeople. Only her older sister escaped, but not before her sister was shot in the womb by the Nazis. Luckily, only the unborn baby died. She says her sister collected all the belongings of the townspeople and vowed to watch over them in her house until she died. The woman gives Jonathan a box labeled "In Case." Only when they leave do they learn her name, Lista. They do not know it now, but Safran took her virginity when they were young. It becomes clear that Lista has lost her mind; she is the woman she claims is her older sister, the one survivor and guardian of Trachimbrod. As the men leave, she says she must go take care of her baby.
The men go back to their hotel and look through the box marked "In Case." In it, among many things, is a photograph of two men, a woman, and a baby. One of the men looks just like Alex. It turns out that the man in the picture is Grandfather, the woman is Grandmother, the baby is Father, and the other man is Herschel, his best friend. Grandfather is the man named Eli, according to the woman's story. He is not really from Odessa, after all, but from the nearby shtetl of Kolki, where Jonathan's grandmother also lived.
Grandfather tells Jonathan and Alex how the Nazis destroyed Kolki. They lined up all the townspeople and commanded each one to point out a Jew or be considered one himself. All the Jews were herded into the synagogue except for Herschel. The Nazi General told Grandfather to point out a Jew, and out of fear for his wife and child, he pointed out Herschel. Herschel was pushed into the synagogue, which the Nazis then burned down. Grandfather had as good as killed his best friend.
Letters from Alex to Jonathan
Alex's letters to Jonathan are written in the same charming dialect as the chapters written by Alex. In them, Alex confides in Jonathan the details of his life in Ukraine. At first, he exaggerates and brags about how many women with whom he is "carnal" and how much money he spends at nightclubs. He also praises Jonathan effusively, telling him how honored he is to write for a great American writer. In time, he becomes honest with Jonathan, explaining that he is actually a virgin and prefers sitting on the beach to spending money at nightclubs. He also begins to give Jonathan some critiques in return for his own. Alex hates the fact that no one ever gets what he wants in Jonathan's writing. He finds it maddening that Brod cannot fall in love and that Safran cannot be with the Gypsy girl. He begs Jonathan to fix these problems, maintaining that writers should make their literary universes better than real life, not the same or worse.
In all of the letters, Alex speaks fondly of Little Igor. Father beats both Alex and Little Igor. Alex wants to protect his brother, and he is saving money to move them both to America. He also updates Jonathan on Grandfather, who has been more depressed since the trip and cries all the time. At night, he often holds the photograph of Augustine and repeats her name over and over. Father and Alex pretend not to notice Grandfather's crying, because they do not want to acknowledge his weakness and sadness.
Alex's last few letters show that he feels like Jonathan's equal. In his second-to-last letter, he tells Jonathan that they should no longer critique one another, because they are now writing in one voice. He says that Grandfather has asked to borrow money from him in order to go looking for Augustine. Alex does not know what to do. In his last letter, Alex tells Jonathan that he has not given Grandfather the money. He knows that even if Grandfather finds Augustine, he will not be satisfied. In fact, he will die from the realization that it is Grandmother and Herschel and his past that he truly wants back, but cannot have. Alex tells Jonathan that he and all his relatives are cowards, because they choose to live a life "once-removed," never really feeling things fully. As a sign of his disapproval, he sends back Jonathan's latest payment with the letter. Then he tells Jonathan that Grandfather committed suicide. Alex ends the letter by apologizing to Jonathan for being so blunt with him. That night, he told Father how he really felt, and wanted to do the same with Jonathan. Alex signs all of his letters "Guilelessly, Alex," except for this one, which he signs, "Love, Alex." The two young men have finally really become friends, but this is the last correspondence they will share.
The last chapter in the book is a letter from Grandfather to Jonathan, which he wrote just before committing suicide. He tells Jonathan how Alex stood up to Father and kicked him out of the house. The end of the letter is addressed to Alex. Grandfather tells him that he can die now, not because he is weak, but because he is finally happy and at peace.