Losing a loved one is a traumatic experience–especially if the cause of his or her death is, by its very nature, incomprehensible.
Nine-year-old Oskar Schell finds solace in the unexpected death of his father–a victim of 9/11–by throwing himself, obssessively, into solving the mystery of a key found, hidden, inside a vase owned by his father. Thus, Oskar, a tambourine-playing, French-speaking, vegan pacifist inventor begins a top-secret mission through the five boroughs of New York to find the key’s corresponding lock.
In his journey, he meets an array of eccentric characters that don’t necessarily bring him closer to the truth, but become his friends. All the while, his relationship with his mother, portrayed by the narrator’s young eyes as absent and self-absorbed, grows even more distant.
The lingering effect of the Word Trade Center attacks is set against the bombings of Dresden, voiced by a second narrator through the diaries of Oskar’s paternal grandfather. His words are apologetic letters to his letters to his son, Thomas, Oskar’s father. The grandmother also gives an account of her life and marriage in letters to her son and grandson.
Though their stories do not intersect in present day, all three are survivors and share in the tragedy of the death of Oskar’s father, Thomas Schell.
The book, a pastiche of Oskar’s drawings and his grandparent’s red-pen and typewritten letters, adds a visual layer to the complex and contradictory emotional yearnings of the characters. With a touch of magical realism, Jonathan Safran Foer creates a moving portrait of how people deal with the loss of a loved one, especially those due to senseless acts of hatred. Oskar’s search for answers ends where the story begins-at his father’s grave alongside a silent stranger, who unbeknownst to the boy at the time, is actually is his grandfather.
Oskar, who secretly carried the guilt of not having said goodbye to his father, finally finds a semblance of peace in the realization that other circumstances had prevented a proper farewell. Exhausted, he closes his eyes and remembers his father on the night before September 11, tucking him in and kissing him goodnight. The last few pages, a flipbook of a jumper falling upwards and back to top of World Trade Center building, is an image that Oskar as well as the families affected by 9/11 consider as a source of comfort; a picture that showed the victims floating towards the sky, free of pain and suffering.