Book of the Day: “Here I Am” by Jonathan Safran Foer
Has Jonathan Safran Foer spent the 12 years since his last novel solely exchanging email LOLs with actress Natalie Portman? Not quite. Foer’s much-anticipated third novel, Here I Am, has arrived. And thankfully, whatever his weaknesses as an email writer, Foer is a heck of a novelist.
Foer writes with crisp sentences, dexterous paragraphs and unswerving honesty—but he’s never completely won me over. His explosive debut, Everything Is Illuminated, and his second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, were worthy reads, but labored to the finish like middle-distance runners in the final stages of a marathon. By contrast, Here I Am is frisky from the starting gun through the tape. Large in physical size and theme, it follows two dire situations unfolding simultaneously: the not-so-unusual implosion of a Jewish-American family and, ho hum, the destruction of the Middle East.
Simply written yet complicated in the emotions it evokes, Here I Am can be construed as a cautionary tale.
Jacob and Julia Bloch live in Washington, D.C., with their three sons. Their marriage, in subtle decline for a while, free falls when Julia finds a series of X-rated texts on Jacob’s phone. At the same time, Jacob’s cousin and nephew arrive from Israel for the upcoming bar mitzvah of the Blochs’ oldest son, Sam. But no sooner do they hit town than an earthquake demolishes the Middle East, fracturing the region’s notoriously thin veneer of peace. Jacob, a man who seems almost paralyzed when faced with a decision of any consequence, must make choices that will alter—or even end—his life and the lives of his family.
Simply written yet complicated in the emotions it evokes, Here I Am can be construed as a cautionary tale. And no, the lesson is not to hide your secret cell phone better. Without giving too much away, both the personal and political stories remind readers of the value of alliances.
Numerous parallels between Jacob Bloch and Foer mark this as a very personal novel. It also may be a great novel. Foer, just 25 when Everything Is Illuminated hit the shelves, is no stranger to the backhanded compliment, “man-child.” At 39, his writing has taken on a sly maturity that feels fresh and new. Here I Am is destined to be a polarizing, much-discussed novel. Love it or hate it, it is well worth your time.
This article was originally published in the September 2016 issue of BookPage.