Everything is Illuminated is basically two-two-two books in one!
In one corner, we have a relatively modern story (late 90s, we're thinking, as the story ends in 1998) featuring a translator and tour guide named Alex Perchov who is guiding a man named Jonathan Safran Foer (yes, same name as the guy whose name is on the cover of the book) on a quest to find both Trachimbrod, the village where his grandfather grew up, and Augustine, a woman who saved Jonathan's grandfather during the war.
They're accompanied by Alex's grandfather and his "Seeing Eye b****" (1.10) Sammy Davis Junior, Junior, a dog who loves to chew her own tail. They journey from Lvov, Ukraine into the countryside, where they find a woman who claims to be Augustine.
Well, she's not. However, she is the last surviving person from Trachimbrod. She gives Jonathan a box full of mementos from Trachimbrod: rings, necklaces, scraps of paper, and photos, among other things. One of the photos, coincidentally, is of Alex's Grandfather and his friend Herschel. Whoa!
It turns out that Herschel is a Jew who was killed in a Nazi raid on their village of Kolki. When the Nazis asked the villagers to point to the Jews, Grandfather pointed to Herschel in order to save himself and his family. Herschel was burned alive in the synagogue, and Grandfather never spoke of it again until that moment. Yikes.
In the other corner (and interspersed throughout the book), is the story that Jonathan Safran Foer (the character, not the author… well, the character and the author, we guess… man, this is confusing), who is writing about his ancestors—namely, his great-times-five-or-six grandmother Brod and his grandfather Safran.
Brod has a magical, maybe-virgin birth, when she, as a baby, bobs to the surface after her father dies in a wagon accident in the river Brod, for which the baby is later named.
A man named Yankel, who raises her until he dies on Trachimday, the festival commemorating the wagon accident on the day of Brod's birth. That day, Brod is raped by a crazy man named Sofiowka, and she meets a traveler called the Kolker, who wins the Trachimday competition. She asks the Kolker to kill Sofiowka (we don't find this out until much later) and he does. Then, obviously, they get married.
Eventually, Safran—Jonathan's grandfather—is born. Safran was born with teeth, so he couldn't nurse well and ends up with a lame right arm due to malnutrition. Don't worry: chicks dig the lame arm. Safran has sex with pretty much every woman in a three-shtetl radius but eventually enters into an arranged marriage with a woman named Zosha. A gypsy who's been in love with him forever celebrates his wedding day by killing herself, and it's really too bad: Safran loved her, too.
Another thing happens on their wedding day: bombs bursting in air, and not in a patriotic sense. Soon, the Nazis arrive and burn Trachimbrod to the ground. It turns out that the woman who isn't Augustine (in the present-day story) is Lista P, a widow whom Safran slept with. She is the only person who survives.
Back in the present day, Alex's Grandfather writes a letter to Jonathan before killing himself in the bathtub. He tells Jonathan that all he wants is for his grandkids to "live without violence" (34.22). His letter ends in the middle of a sentence, and with it, so does the book.
Wait a minute, was everything illuminated? Was anything illuminated? Dig into to our detailed summary to shed some light on all this.