Friday, May 08, 2020

Fiction Review: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Many years ago, my husband and I enjoyed the movie adaptation of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, starring Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock, so when I saw the novel, written by Jonathan Safran Foer, in a used bookstore, I snatched it up. That was also many years ago, but the pandemic has helped me to dive deep into my waiting-to-be-read shelves! I loved this warm and funny novel populated by likable, quirky characters that is all about grief, love, and healing.

Nine-year-old Oskar lost his dad in 9/11 more than a year ago, and he is still grieving deeply for the loss. He misses his dad's help with his many inventions, the "missions" he would send him on out in the city, and the stories he would tell Oskar at bedtime. Oskar is a very imaginative child with a huge vocabulary and a lot of anxiety. He doesn't have many friends--kids tend to think he's strange--but he has his mom and Grandma, and he seems to be on a first-name basis with everyone in his neighborhood from the doorman to the mailman to the guy who runs the locksmith shop down the road. One day, searching through his dad's closet and embracing all the memories it holds, Oskar finds a mysterious key at the bottom of a blue vase that looks out of place on the top shelf. He's never seen a key like it before, and Oskar decides that it's a mission his dad left for him. His only clue is the word "Black" written on the tiny envelope the key is in. Oskar comes up with a plan to visit every person in the NY metro area with the last name Black: that would be 472 people, at 216 different addresses. He sets out to visit each and every one of them (in alphabetical order), to try his key in their locks and ask them if they knew his dad. His adventure takes him to every corner of the five boroughs and to many, many people, some of whom become new friends. This journey begins to help Oskar heal.

In alternating chapters, the stories of Oskar's grandparents are told, slowly unfolding bit by bit. They met in Germany when they were teens during WWII, but Oskar has never met his grandfather. He left before Oskar was born ... and, in fact, before Oskar's father was born. His story is told through a series of letters, written beginning in 1963 and titled Why I'm Not Where You Are, sharing his childhood, adolescence, and meeting and marrying Oskar's grandma. She gets her own voice, too, told in a series of letters to Oskar, written in 2003 from the airport and detailing her own life, from Germany to NYC to the present. Oskar and his grandma are very close, and the story of her past and his grandfather have always been a mystery. In this way, the slow unraveling of his grandparents' story is also an integral part of Oskar's story.

It's not just the story and the characters that make this such a unique novel; it is also written in an original way, integrating Oskar's first-person narration in the present with letters from each of his grandparents, referencing and filling in the past. The book also contains photographs, presumably taken by Oskar with his grandfather's old camera, which he carries around his neck, and a few written items from Oskar's life. The author plays a lot with form and presentation, providing a multi-media way of slowly learning about the main character and his family and following Oskar's adventures around the city. There are plenty of heart-breaking references and remembrances to the events of 9/11 (after all, that's understandably on Oskar's mind a lot). As such a precocious child, he understands far more than most nine-year-olds probably would, though he is still naive about certain things. That dark theme is countered by plenty of humor. The world is an amusing place when seen through Oskar's eyes, with his mix of worldliness and innocence. Many of these funny moments took me by surprise, causing me to suddenly laugh out loud. Reading this novel is a unique experience: an original story peopled by quirky characters, carrying both heartbreak and hope. I would definitely like to read more from Foer (this was my first of his), and I'd like to re-watch the wonderful, uplifting movie adaptation of this novel, too.

368 pages, Mariner Books
Recorded Books

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Listen to a sampleof the audiobook here, with three different narrators, and/or download it from Audible. The sample provides a good glimpse into Oskar's strange, funny narration.

You can purchase Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close from an independent bookstore, either locally or online, here:
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Or you can order Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close from Book Depository, with free shipping worldwide.


  1. This is one of those books that I've seen around a lot, but didn't realize there was a movie. I also had no idea what it was about. It sounds intriguing and I already want to know where the key fits.

    1. That's the big mystery!! The book and movie are both great.

  2. I have this book on my shelf but never got around to reading it.

    1. Same with me until last month finally!