Hmm. I almost gave this book a three because there are some things that I really liked about it and others that I really hated (and so it ends up in the middle), but I decided overall that it was better than average and so gave it a 4.
So, I'll start with the positives. I loved the pictures. They reminded me of the best part of Mrs. Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children and they were appropriate, yet quirky and sort of out of place at times.
There were lots of interesting parallels and potential book club discussion topics (shame that I still have not found a decent book club). The passage of time was interesting, not only is the narration all over (we don't go chronological with flashbacks to Dresden/WWII, we flip forward and backward even within Oskar's story). Simultaneously, Oskar wishes time could go back to before 9/11 and his grandma has backward dreasms. There was just a lot here with the time theme.
Thomas I (grandpa) and Oskar both have childhood (although Thomas I was arguably almost an adult when he lost Anna and his family) tragedies. They both have trouble coping. I was unsure (and yes, this is a criticism, even though I'm still in the positive section of the review) whether or not Oskar's autistic tendencies (his projects, his need to wear white, his phobias) were all post-9/11 or were part of his general personality (so is he autistic?); but certainly Thomas I's loss of speech was a cause of the tragedy.
Thomas II (dad) and Oskar both have to grow up without a father. Oskar of course has his memories of the first (10? 12? Another criticism is that I was never sure exactly how old Oskar is...he is obviously very bright and curious and his mother certainly gives him lots of freedom, but then there are times when I think he could be as young as 7 or 8) however many years with his dad and Thomas II never knows his father. In fact, Thomas II tracks Thomas I and doesn't properly introduce himself (of course we only find this story out peripherally). Again, there was a lot to explore with the loss of a parent theme.
In that vein (sort of), Thomas I's refrain throughout is that life is harder than death. Living through the loss of Anna is ultimately his curse. Similarly, Oskar is unwilling to move on after Thomas II's death. Grandma (we never learn her name, she is simply in relation to the other characters: Anna's sister, Thomas I's wife, Thomas II's mom, and Oskar's grandma) has a much healthier attitude (despite the time reversal dreams). She says something that I have often said in my life which is that death is nothingness and we should not fear it. Having an agnostic/aethistic view of death is not as comforting as accepting religious bullshit, but it is true that I will feel about 2112 (I'm assuming I won't live another 100 years) the exact same way that I feel about 1912. I'm just not alive. Nothing to fear, nothing to worry about; just time in which I don't exist.
Now, for the criticism: Oskar's unhealthy obsession with the key and his quest for closure provided a plot, but it was a weak and unnecessary plot. The book was ultimately a character piece. The loss in Dresden and the loss from 9/11 both provided enough of a context to explore individual's differences in dealing with loss and death and the ultimate destruction of war.
Instead, Foer develops this intricate Scooby-Doo mystery of the key. I will not elaborate on all the problems with Oskar's wild goose chase, I will simply point out the three most frustration ones: the "red herring" of the Thomas Schell written all over the art store..really a man in "hiding" goes out in public and writes his name everywhere? the key in the vase was never noticed by Thomas II even though he is so discriminating and particular about his wife's anniversary gift? the message sits for 8 months on the machine so that Foer can wrap things up conveniently when he is ready? BLACCH!
Finally, I did not like or believe the way in which everyone knows all, but no one talks about it. Grandma knows that Oskar and Thomas I have met; Mom (again no name...what does this say about the women here? The only woman whose name we know is Abby Black and she is a sex object...for a 9 year?) knows what Oskar is up to, but doesn't follow him or discuss it or anything. Presumably Mom also knows Thomas I is back, but doesn't discuss it. Just all around awkward ridiculous stuff.
I will see the movie because I am curious about whether they pull it off or not, but I reserved the book before I saw the preview that the movie was coming.