November 28, 2016

Here I Am - Jonathan Safran Foer

Penguin Random House, September 6, 2016.

Four Stars

Here I Am is a spiritual, contemplative novel disguised as a family drama. Jacob, the main character, explores issues of fatherhood – the title is taken from the biblical story of Abraham and his son Isaac – as well as the complexities of marriage and how familial bonds affect one’s practice of spirituality. Jacob struggles to define what it means to be Jewish today in America – is it about simple belief, committed practice, or the extreme of sacrificing himself for Israel’s freedom?

The novel covers the events of one month in the life of Jacob Bloch and his wife Julia, in present day Washington, D.C. The Blochs are facing problems in their marriage that have been building for a long time, and they have reached a point where even minor issues cause major conflict. They are still deeply connected to each other but they are disconnected and lacking passion. Their three sons are clever and precocious – sometimes too much so for their age, but their dialogue was definitely the most fun part of the novel. Even when Jacob and Julia discuss divorce, their bond is strong and their communication is clever and respectful.

The Blochs’ family drama is interrupted by visiting Israeli relatives, in town for Jacob’s oldest son Sam’s bar mitzvah. Their trip to D.C. coincides with a catastrophic earthquake in the Middle East that has far reaching effects on political policy. Jacob sees his visiting cousin as an alternate version of himself, had he chosen to live in Israel and focus more on his Jewish heritage – he is inspired by his nephew, a soldier in the Israeli army, to contemplate relocating to Israel in order to defend the country in the war that seems to be coming. The international conflict echoes Jacob’s internal one, as he struggles with his concept of religious identity.

Foer’s new novel makes many surprising observations about spirituality, love and life – but I think there is just too much going on here. It felt like Foer just had so many ideas for this book, and he was unable to edit out any of them for the greater good. Although the dialogue between the Bloch family members is the strongest part of the novel – the conversations are so authentic yet so entertaining – many of the situations felt like parts of short stories that were thrown in because they share a common theme. It does seem like Here I Am may be autobiographical to some extent, as Foer has recently split with his wife, author Nicole Krauss, and the emotional complexities of the novel feel like they were perhaps a cathartic process.

Like Foer’s other works, this novel is full of irreverent yet mature humour, referencing topical current events. It is a more mature version of Foer’s earlier novels, in which his usual thoughts and ideas are grounded in realism yet made broader at the same time. The strength of Here I Am is in speech – not only the dialogue, but the speeches that define events such as Sam’s bar mitzvah – and even Abraham’s speech to Isaac and, more importantly, to God. Even though the threads of this novel get tangled halfway through, it is not only entertaining but also intellectually stimulating. Fans of Foer will once again love this book.

I received this book from Penguin Random House and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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