April 15, 2017

The Idiot - Elif Batuman

Penguin Press, March 14, 2017.

Five Stars

The Idiot is the coming of age story of Selin, the daughter of Turkish immigrants, as she moves from her home in New Jersey to begin her freshman year at Harvard in 1995. Brilliant and outstanding as a high school student, Selin finds herself thrown into a group of multicultural and multilingual characters as broad as the cast of a Russian novel – in fact, this book owes a debt to Russian literature in many ways, including the Dostoyevsky title.

Selin is aimless and almost ambivalent about her future, and she signs up for classes almost at random. Her focus is on linguistics, although she quickly loses her faith in the power of language to truly communicate. In her introductory Russian language class, Selin becomes friends with Serbian student Svetlana, who seems to inherently understand the social conventions of university in ways that Selin cannot. She also meets Ivan, a math major from Hungary – she falls for his depth of character, but their entire relationship may be based on the misunderstandings of the English language.

In 1995, there is no social media, and email is brand new. Selin and Ivan begin to communicate through email almost by accident, and she obsesses over their thrilling correspondence – the kind of conversations that are filled with so much intense meaning when you’re a teenager, but in reality they are mostly nonsense. Ivan’s thoughts are new and mysterious to Selin, but in real life, she is mostly speechless in his presence – especially when he talks about his elusive girlfriend. Meanwhile, the students act out an unrequited love story in Russian class, which takes on new meaning for Selin.

Selin’s constant narration of seemingly random events are very evocative of the absurdity of Russian literature. Her na├»ve observations of the world around her are deadpan and dry, unintentionally hilarious. The description of every small detail of Selin’s daily life distracts from the forward motion of the plot, but I think that’s the point – her use of language subverts the traditional plot, and shows us how complicated communication can become. Selin’s inner world is so charming and clever, I never wanted it to end. Without the surprising amount of detail, the novel could have easily been much shorter than its 450-page count, but I could have kept reading much longer. However, I don’t think that will be the case for everyone – the writing style is divisive, and readers will either love or hate The Idiot.

At the end of the school year, Ivan arranges for Selin to teach English in several small Hungarian villages, while he stays in Budapest. Selin first travels to Paris with Svetlana, which makes life in the villages seem even more absurd. She continues to explore her experiences of first love, and she is filled with as much confusion as exhilaration when she meets with Ivan. Their relationship is unconventional, rejecting the usual young adult romance tropes in clever and unexpected ways.

Throughout her journey, Selin continues to explore the complications of communication, especially as language starts to seem so arbitrary to her. Ending up in Turkey, Selin begins to lose faith in the narrative of her own life. She learns, as we all eventually do, that there is no overarching plot to life – it isn’t a Russian novel, except for the fact that it is unexpected and absurd.

It’s hard to explain why I loved this novel so much, but Selin’s rich inner world just resonated with me. Batuman is certainly an author to watch, and I will likely be purchasing this, and any other novel, that she writes.

I received this book from Penguin Press and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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