A young American Jew, named Jonathan Safran Foer, journeys to Ukraine in search of the woman who saved his grandfather's life during the Nazi liquidation. Armed with many copies of an old photograph of Augustine and his grandfather, maps, and cigarettes, Jonathan begins his adventure with Ukrainian native and soon-to-be good friend, Alexander "Alex" Perchov, who is Foer's age and very fond of American pop culture, albeit culture that is already out of date in the United States. Alex studied English at his university, and even though his knowledge of the language is not first-rate, he becomes the translator. Throughout the book, the meaning of love is deeply examined.

The writing and structure received critical acclaim for the manner in which it switches between two story arcs: fragments of Foer-the-character's novel-in-progress, where he tells in highly literary English a magical story about the citizens of Trachimbrod; and a straightforward narrative of searching for Trachimbrod (an invented name for the real village
Trochenbrod). They are tied together by letters sent from Alex to Foer and attached to Alex's version. Alex's narrative is notable for its broken English, which sounds as if he learned English from a thesaurus without ever hearing it spoken.