The Idiot by Elif Batuman


As Selin, daughter of a Turkish immigrant, begins her first year at Harvard University in 1995, she embraces the freshman benefit of testing out many areas of study, connects with her classmates via email, and meets people from all over the world in her dorm and classes. Selin experiences many things both mundane and hugely adventurous throughout her first year and also experiences something close to love.

This is such an odd book. I picked it up after hearing many, many glowing reviews and because I am fascinated by Elif Batuman as a woman and author. It’s very hard to describe how this book progressed, because the plot seems to simply… exist. The book is certainly not built around Selin’s time at Harvard and it could not be considered a campus novel. It isn’t a love story, though Selin does fall in love. It isn’t an immigration story, though Selin does touch on her Turkish culture frequently, to my delight. It also isn’t an epic or an adventure tale, though our main character flies to Paris, tutors in a Hungarian village, spends time in Budapest, and ends up in Turkey. So, what is this book? A character study, most accurately. Batuman places words precisely to bring to life our main character and represent what it is like to be 19, unsure, starting something new, and unaware of one’s own worth to a certain extent. A very interesting, unusual, unique way to build a story.

At times, it’s hard to decide who the title, The Idiot, refers to. Is it Selin, for devoting her time, heart, and attention to a man who doesn’t value her? Is it Ivan for being an insufferable 19-year-old with a superiority complex? Or is it me, the reader, because I was plagued with the thought that 60% of this book and Batuman dry, witty humor was going completely over my head!? The jury is still out on this one.

However, one of the main themes that I did appreciate and enjoy is the role of language throughout the book. Selin and Ivan communicate through email. Neither one feels able to say anything to the point— in fact, the more poetic, metaphorical, and vague, the better and the more interested the other becomes. Selin is constantly attempting to translate Ivan’s implications and unsaid thoughts; yet, at the same time, she teaches English as a Second Language and learning to speak a new language (Hungarian). Selin’s ability to stay completely in the dark while broadening her language abilities is a delicious duality that I enjoyed thinking about throughout this book.

Overall? At times, I found this book too mundane. The entertainment value was quite low, and it took me many weeks to read it. BUT I can appreciate Batuman’s skill as an author, and I always appreciate a book that leaves me thinking about literary devices and themes long after I finish the last word.

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PUBLICATION DETAILS: Penguin Press; March 14,2017; 978-1594205613; 432 pages. Fiction -> Coming of Age