Advance Galley Reviews
So wry, and funny in many unexpected places. It's hard to be both very earnest and funny as a writer, and I think Batuman pulls this off great.
When I first started reading The Idiot I was thrown off by the title. I mean, the protagonist is studying at Harvard for crying out loud! But then as I got further into the story I started seeing how Selin could feel a bit like an outsider. So many of her classmates had strong opinions on things and she didn't couldn't pin down how she felt one way or the other. She saw both sides of things and agreed with parts of both. She felt the inability to drum up strong convictions made one wishy-washy, or stupid. I think that's when the title of the book dawned on me.
While I enjoyed Batuman's writing and liked reading about the courses Selin took at Harvard, I found the book to be a bit slow going. I had to really push myself to get into the book and finish it. Perhaps it was my mistake opting to review this book as it wasn't entirely my taste. I thought I would connect with it more when Selin mentioned New Jersey and even named my hometown (Woodbridge) in the list of NJ Transit stops while she herself road to the train around Boston.
If I was granting stars to each book I read on a scale of 1 to 5, I may give this book a 4. It didn't thrill me but the writing itself was superb. I would recommend it to students in college as a good book to help them feel comfortable in their own uneasiness in the classroom or in the academic setting. Most students around the country lack confidence when confronted with peers that seem more advanced or creative than themselves. But as an adult out of college for almost 10 years, I found it a little hard to connect to the characters so I wouldn't recommend this book to just anyone.
Unfortunately I could not get into this book! I do recommend for those who have a love of Russian literature
I'm about halfway through the book and have yet to come across anything resembling a plot. We follow Selin, the protagonist, as she muddles through university (so far) and... well, that's it. It's vignette after vignette after vignette about freshman life - charming in small doses, not so much when it *is* the whole book. There's a You've Got Mail-style budding romance that picks up about a third of the way in, but it's not enough to hold my attention; and besides, the guy is a bit of a jerk. Probably a DNF. Sorry, Penguin.
I really struggled with this book. Although it was a very iartsy view of college life and definitely had some intriguing moments, I struggled to relate to the characters especially Selin. Although not especially appealing to me, it might appeal to a younger reader. I encourage all to give it a try and see what you think!
I got intrigued by the description of the book: 90's, college experience, friendships with Easter Europeans. Immediately I had very different expectations than for an average American novel. And indeed it is a very unusual novel. For some it might seem shallow and strange but the ones who are familiar to some level with Eastern European literature (because IT IS a very different literature tradition), might recognize the vibe, flare and intelligence of such style. It's still not an Easter European novel but more of a experience of such novel and that's why I give 4 stars out of 5.
I also like this book because of a similar experience I had with my American husband and how he went to Lithuania to understand me better. And if someone would think the author was mocking Eastern Europeans, actually, I could give my word that it is a pretty accurate depiction. While reading, I was always wondering which parts were fantasy or is it all a memoir.
A meandering, almost impressionistic novel, but one that eventually came together for me. I'm not entirely sure I like the central characters as people, but they seem authentic as fully-fledged persons, and I appreciate that. Because the story is told in snippets, almost like sporatic entries in a diary or overdeveloped facebook status updates, I continually got the sense that the main character was only curious about the world, people, and herself in a cursory sort of way, never really digging in and learning anything or even pursuing it with any enthusiasm at all. Life kind of happens to her, and considering how passive she is, she gets a pretty good life. This story is actually pretty great -- freshman year at Harvard, then adventure in Paris on the way to teaching English in Hungarian villages for the summer. But her last paragraph, indicating that she changed her major because her classes had taught her nothing even though she had wanted to learn, rings hollow. Even when she's staying with families in Hungary, she can't think of any questions to ask them, nothing she wants to know about her friendly hosts. She's simply not curious beyond a 'huh, that's weird' kind of observation, and so ultimately I never liked her. It's a bit maddening, especially since it goes on for so long, tracking the world going by her window, waiting for her to reach out and grab something. But it is a story, it does have a plot, and that world outside her window is actually pretty interesting. I just wish she would allow herself (and her readers) to explore it.
This is an up close look at college life, told through snippets of Selin. She is awkward and not quite sure of herself and what she should be studying but she does know she wants to be a writer.
The Idiot is littered with literary and film references, and offers an nuanced idea of how languages are learnt and understood and how your background can influence you but so does your surroundings and your experiences.
I felt drawn to the story told through Selin's introduction to Russian textbook that they had to study. The story also had a student, a young women who is trying to discover who she is and isn't having much luck in the romance department. The snippets of the story throughout intersect with Selin and her life, and she reflects on how the characters in her Russian story are or aren't similar to her own life.
This is a hard book to get through, often feeling disjointed with the different pieces that make up Selin's coming of age and turning into an adult, however her awkward self-awareness is redeeming and so many one line observations are laugh out loud moments. You will identify with Selin, feel sorry for her, cringe along at some of her choices and smile at her naivety at some things while in others she is so mature and wise beyond her years.
It's 1995. Email is a new medium, one that lends itself to navel-gazing as well as awkward correspondences with older mathematics students in your Russian class. The Idiot is a book that builds little narrative beyond sequential vignettes of its heroine's freshman year of college. Its strength lies in author Elif Batuman, who is obviously a language geek. Batuman imbues her characters with endearing habits, affinities, and totally relatable quirks and insecurities. The Idiot's protagoniste, Selin, is a gawky young woman born to Turkish immigrants in New Jersey. She is a seeker of meaning. So like many over-thinkers, she turns to books. Selin endeavors to take classes in every aspect of language, hoping to find answers in linguistics. She falls for Hungarian math major Ivan, and ends up spending her freshman summer teaching English in Hungary. This debut novel is a long-haul proposition. Many readers will choose not to soldier through its 448 pages. Those who do, however, will no doubt crave more of Batuman's subtle humor, as well as more of Selin's quest for answers.
I got through the first third of the book before I decided that I just couldn't do it anymore. Nothing was happening...ever. I didn't particularly care for the narrator or anyone else that she came in contact with. I felt like I was reading the disjointed journal of a weird college kid and the bizarre people she interacted with day to day. Normally "weird" and "bizarre" are positives for me, but not this time. I really, really wanted to like this book, and I kept telling myself "just read a few more pages" in hopes that something interesting would happen, but it never did.
There wasn't anything in particular wrong with this story, however there wasn't anything particularly great either. I felt like I was reading the short handed version of a girl's journal. Selin seems kind of in the mist of a movie she's not really paying attention to. Svetlana seemed more interesting but lacked depth becauae we're experiencing her through Selin's disconnected point of view. By the middle of this story I was wondering how I could get back the time I spent confused about the point of this novel.
Reading books is my pleasure. I struggled to reach the end of this one. But I did. I feel like I have just crawled over the finish line of a triathlon. Unfortunately, I do not feel that I have gained anything. Selin is a college freshman experiencing her first love. For her, love is not blooming, it is awkward, disturbing and clumsy. She and Ivan communicate with each other best by email which is sterile and flat. When together, they are afraid of saying the wrong thing, afraid of touching, afraid of sex, afraid of feeling. The prose is a string of stream of consciousness vignettes. Not my thing. Each of the 400 odd pages of this novel drag on for centuries. I have visibly aged these past few days. Thank you Penguin First to Read program for a complimentary copy but I must move on.
It's very rare that I don't finish a book. With "The Idiot," I tried, I really did - I got through 129 pages before I just couldn't do it anymore.
My main problem with the book is that nothing happens. I basically just read 129 pages of a girl's weirdly detached reactions to her utterly absurd life. She has weird roommates, goes to myopically navel-gazing classes with bizarre professors, she meets a strange dude who she exchanges unintelligible emails with, and on and on. So what is the point?
I've read plenty of books that were slow burns, but this is ridiculous.
Since I'm currently a graduate student, I don't have as much time to read for pleasure as I used to as I have less free time than before. Because of this, I've recently decided to stop reading books if I don't feel drawn to them in the first 50 pages. Unfortunately, this is the first book to fail my new standards and thus the review is only about the first 50 pages of The Idiot.
I found the synopsis for The Idiot to be compelling -- as someone who felt out of water at an elite institution, I was looking forward to reading this fictional account that features the central character exploring a similar setting. While I enjoyed how the characters reflected and talked about Harvard (particularly one of the main character's roommates who is working multiple jobs to stay afloat and sending extra money to her family back home), the author's Russian literature obsession created a blockade to enjoying the novel. The author is clearly a huge fan of Russian literature, as am I, which is why I found it so strange that I couldn't get hooked on this book. Within the first 20 pages, the author had already mentioned a Dostoevsky title and alluded to Anna (Karenina)... and the book is, of course, titled The Idiot à la Dostoevsky's work. The amount of references to Russian literature is enough to be alienating. They could have been a bit more scattered to create some balance before the reader collapses under the perceived stuffiness of the novel.
Within the first 50 pages, the main character reads a book meant for people learning a language and remarks that it sounds so stilted to reflect the limited grammar they had learned so far... but that also describes how the whole novel comes across while reading. Perhaps this style is intentional, but I'm not sure. Regardless, I haven't read a book that is this boring at the beginning in quite some time. A lot of the novel seems to contain trivial facts like a diary written by someone about the things they did each day that simply aren't that interesting except to the person describing their own daily tasks.
I couldn't bring myself to read more of this book. Perhaps it has some magnificent plot that is worth pushing through the tedium, but I didn't find it in the first 50 pages.
I would like to thank the Penguin's First-To-Read program for a free and honest review.
"And each message contained the one that had come before, and so your own words came back to you—all the words you threw out, they came back. It was like the story of your relations with others, the story of the intersection of your life with other lives, was constantly being recorded and updated and you could check it at any time."
The Idiot by Elif Batuman presents a coming of age story told in a series of steam of conscious vignettes. In the year 1995, we follow the observations Selin, an incoming freshman at Harvard. At the start of the narrative, we navigate with her adapting to unfamiliar classes, like Russian language and soon begins a correspondence with Ivan, a senior classmate.
"And sometimes when a connection is delicate, the steps take too long to spell out—it just isn’t possible, by the time you get to the end of the steps, the mood is lost."
The primary theme of the novel appears to be the idea of communication or misunderstandings. Selin typically views the world in fragmentary and occasionally witty observations, which were a hit or miss for me. For me, the narrative flow read as regularly disconnected. I couldn’t connect with Selin honestly. The humor was often rather flat as well. As with Selin, having a disconnect with her circumstances, I also had the same trouble in connecting with the narrative.
"It seemed strange to meet more people, now that Ivan had gone away. I had come to Hungary because of Ivan, and now that he had left, my reason for being there became increasingly unclear, even to me."
One of my biggest peeves from The Idiot was the strange relationship with Ivan. As described in other reviews and several blurbs, Selin and Ivan’s relationship is a perfect representation of the mundaneness of everyday love. Honestly, I didn’t read it as more of an obsessive crush that never went anywhere. Everyday love is more than just a series of convoluted emails and awkward dates. Selin’s obsession with Ivan only gradually plodded the plot forward.
The charm of The Idiot comes not from the protagonist but the intersecting scenes from the world around her. Honestly, I felt akin to the comedic characters that she failed at tutoring or the dialogs with her classmate Svetlana. Like this was a beautiful gem of passage:
"The next week, I was supposed to get him to say what color things were. There was a worksheet. He was supposed to say that the paper was white, the pen was blue, and the board was black.
“The paper is white,” I said, holding up a paper.
He nodded. “El papel es blanco,” he said.
“Right, so repeat after me. The paper is white.”
“Papel, es, blanco,” he said, with a serious expression like mine.
“No, repeat the words I’m saying,” I said. “The paper is white.”
After twenty minutes he could say, “Papel iss blonk.” He said it with an expression of great patience and kindness. We moved on to, “The pen is blue.” We started with, “El bolígrafo es azul,” and eventually got to “Ball iss zool.” Then our time was up. "
Even the strange story of the character Nina found in her introductory Russian textbook was more engaging of a narrative. Batuman has a wonderful talent for creating engaging vignettes with interesting characters. I wished I could have left the insecurities of Selin long enough to enjoy the atmosphere around her.
Batuman’s The Idiot had its moments but read as overall exhausted for me. I felt as though I was reading a graduate students magnum opus over an engaging literary novel. The overall structure and characters just didn’t work for me. I will still keep an eye out for more of Batuman’s work. The Idiot presents a lot of elements that on their own are wonderful. I am hoping to read more of that than what was presented in The Idiot. Overall rating 2.5 stars out of 5.
"I hadn’t learned what I had wanted to about how language worked. I hadn’t learned anything at all."
I lost interest about 30% of the way through. The plot just isn't that interesting- boring actually. I fell asleep reading it multiple times. Selin has a good and down-to-earth sense of humor and I can relate to being unsure of yourself. However, that is not enough to trudge through this ridiculous novel. It was confusing. Why are there so many Ivan's?? So many questions that I don't care to hear the answer to.
I didn't enjoy this book. The plot was all over the place and it didn't hold my interest. I wouldn't recommend this book.
While I enjoyed some aspects of the protagonist, the intellectual explorations of linguistics, and some character portrayals, I was not captivated by The Idiot and could not forgive its length. I think there is incredible promise here, the main protagonist's unease and confusion with language, her place in the world, and her crush, but ultimately, I do not see it as having gone anywhere. The story picked up for me around page 394 and I was really struggling to get that far, always pushing myself to see when it would pique my interest.
I enjoyed Selin's humor and her perspective on academia and even Hungary, but since I could not relate to her, it was hard to view it with emotions. In a detached way I appreciated these aspects, but nothing about the book drew me in or encouraged me to keep reading. The length kept it feeling like the book was a string of anecdotes or smaller memories connected by a very loose and thin thread that I lost track of constantly.
When I started reading this story, I found myself quickly brought into the story. The author did a good job drawing the reader into the story. As I countinued reading, I kept waiting for something to set up, something to happen. The story was enjoyable, but it seemed like things were not moving along quickly enough. There was a lot going on but the story felt like it was not progressing. When things happened, the events felt small, things that were not important or confusing. The book was still interesting, and I kept reading. So late in the story when the character goes abroad and does not contact her love interest, it is confusing. I got lost as to what was the focus of the story, what was the story trying to say. I stuck it out, as the character's hijinks were still interesting. Then all of a sudden the character meets up with the love interest and...I was not sure what happened. There was no resolution to the story. There was too much left to interpretation. After I read the book, maybe it was me, but I did not know what the point of the story was. It was interesting, but it felt like it just told the story of a girl. There was no specific point besides the girls' repeated failures while trying to understand herself. The story was just so broad in events and information that I got lost. It is an interesting read, but I completely missed what the author was trying to say. I'll come back to it and try to read it again, but for now it just felt like a very long story that did not seem to have a specific point.
"There is hardly a single action we perform in that phase which we would not give anything, in later life, to be a bee to annul. Whereas what we ought to regret is that we no longer possess he spontaneity which made us perform them." This quote, from Proust's "Within A Budding Grove," serves (in part) as the book's epitaph, and little else could better summarize the feeling and effect this novel produces. , and it's hard to express why--I have trouble even describing the book without making it sound so much less than what it is. Again like Proust, the plot could be summarized quite simply--"Selin decides to become a writer." But all throughout are really wonderful passages exploring language, art, literature, youth, love, and on and on. Please do yourself a favor and read this.
Disclaimer: I received an eARC of this novel from Penguin in exchange for my honest review. I so badly wanted to love this book, given that it fits so squarely within my interests. The prose was beautifully written, but like another reviewer said, it was largely devoid of passion. I had a very difficult time feeling engaged with our main character, Selin, and with the lackluster plot. I will definitely keep an eye on Elif Batuman's future releases, however, because with the right plot her writing will surely take off.
I received an ARC of this book for an honest and unbiased opinion. That being said, the best thing about this book is that it's over...and I can read pretty much anything.
Early on in the book, the main character, Selin, talks about how there are times when her mother hands her books she's read and says "Read this and tell me the point." I wish I had someone I could hand this book to and say that to.
A rambling stream of consciousness, a book of self-discovery, Selin is this 19 year old who has no idea who she is. And I remember being 19 and not having a clue. It's why I wanted to read this book. But I didn't feel like there was any sort of resolution. There were more misadventures and things that made her unhappy and feel displaced in the world. And then...more passive aggressive whining about how she didn't know what she wanted to make her happy.
"The Idiot" tells the story of Selin, entering as a freshmen into Harvard, and her entanglement with fellow classmate Ivan Varga.
From the beginning of this novel, you'll wonder what you have gotten yourself into. The novel is set in the '90's, with the invention of e-mail beginning and when everyone still used VHS tapes and cassettes. It also reads like a novel from the '90's. Books today, whether we realize it or not, have become more sentimental compared to what was written about 30 years before when disillusionment was a problem everyone had; we had hit a plateau.
"The Idiot" is written almost devoid of passion, almost list-like and sort of diary entries of her life that fit more in this '90's decade than the one we're in. As Selin goes on into school, the more isolated and almost obsessed with Ivan she becomes. They write to each other in this new thing called e-mail and behind the screens they can form a relationship that might not make it in the "real world", a sort of prediction that's already happened.
Throw in the fact that Ivan has a girlfriend and moves from school to school, whenever they meet it seems like true love, and by the time you read about Ivan introducing Selin to his family, you think it might be going somewhere, but, SPOILER, it does not.
Halfway through the book, Selin sees a school counselor to get a reign on this relationship and the counselor wonders if Ivan even exists. At this point, so does the reader. It is not until the end where we get a resolution, but we're left wondering who is "The Idiot", is this a play on words, or is someone missing something?
Once you get past page 100, you start to see more clearly a plot which details Selin's growing disillusionment with the world around her and the people she interacts with and left me wondering what she was going to do next with this revelation.
A good read, if a long one, and something for analytical study, not so much "destination reading".
A Penguin First to Read ARC e-book in exchange for an honest review.
I found it really hard to get into this book and care about the characters. It is supposed to be a coming of age novel following an 18 year old college freshman who is socially awkward and struggling to find herself.
The dialogue was eh and the plot dragged on. Not my favorite read though there is some good dry humor spread throughout that made it okay. I think this novel could have benefited from being a little shorter.
4 stars. I mostly loved this book. It is a coming of age story -- Selin, the daughter of Turkish immigrants, is just starting her freshman year at Harvard when the book opens.
Batuman gets so much right! Everything from the navel-gazing academics to the workings of the PINE email system. She is very slyly funny, and has a lot to say about language, communication (or lack thereof), and meaning.
A couple of things that detracted for me -- perhaps I am a lazy reader, but I wanted more of a plot. 400+ pages of a teenager ruminating about language can be a bit much to take. Also, Selin's love interest, Ivan, seems to have close to zero redeeming qualities -- he's a jerk and boring. Why is Selin so hung up? It made me want to reach through the pages and slap both of them.
Overall, an excellent read and I look forward to more from Batuman.
I received an eARC of this book in exchange for an honest review from First to Read. I am, as always, grateful for this opportunity.
It is 1995, 19 year old Selin’s first year at Harvard. No longer one of the strongest in her sets, she has difficulty trying to set herself apart from the other students. Taking courses in things she has never heard of, embracing thought process that are alien to her, and trying to understand her new world; Selin is a sweet and interesting voice for all the youth trying to both stand out and fit in. There are roommates and friends, email and love interests. Bars and tutoring sessions, treks to Hungary that begin as instructional and end up leaving her feeling like a guest on vacation.
In all of this there is a book from her Russian class, Nina in Siberia, which she connects to and is intrigued by. As someone that feels that books, and words, have real meaning she always looks for the “true meaning” behind a book. It is important to her to understand it on a deep level. This brings us to the other constant in the book, her emails with Ivan from Russian class. Quickly, existential conversations about books, life, atoms and clowns, drag Selin deeper and deeper into love/obsession with Ivan. He says he feels the same to an extent, but he has a girlfriend that he “only sometimes loves”. Through the story, Selin tries to get a hold of her feelings, to understand what is going on. Ivan continues to call, to spend time with her simply because he likes to.
I loved the flow of this book, and the voice of Selin. I identified with her in many ways, seeing my younger self in many of her fears and insecurities. I loved the cast of characters, though felt like some- Ivan, Svetlana and her mother- could have been fleshed out a bit more. This did not hamper my enjoyment of each of Selin’s new discoveries and adventures. There were times where I was angry at Selin, feeling like she let Ivan take advantage of her feelings…. And times where I was furious at Ivan for leading her on. I can remember being that young, though, and am not sure it was intentional- he did care for her I think, and wanted a friendship. At the same time knowing someone thinks that much of you is slightly intoxicating. I don’t know if I would label this as first love, but it is a first crush; and that is an important part of growing up. I feel like many teens will feel the pull of these characters. Five stars!
On the adult content scale, there is drinking and some substance abuse. There’s also light language. It’s all fairly mild. I give it a four.
I LOVED this book. It is an unconventional coming-of-age story that bears little resemblance to any other I have read. The eponymous 'idiot' is 18-year-old Harvard freshman Selin, though with all the Russian influences popping up in the story, the title is likely intended to evoke Dostoyevsky's masterpiece too. This is not a dramatic tale, and is led by character rather than plot. The lovable Selin is certainly not an idiot, quite the opposite, but she is naive and chronically introspective, constantly analyzing her own and others' behavior in a way that made me both nostalgic for my teenage years and very glad they are over! While 'The Idiot' is an intellectual novel, it is also hilarious - I adored Selin's dry wit, and can't remember the last time I laughed so much while reading. I was also glad the love story remained an unrequited one - how refreshing.
This book won't be for everyone - some may find it boring because the lack of a strong plot. However, if character and voice are what you're looking for, it is perfect. I'm already thinking of people I will buy it for and recommend it to. Wonderful.
A gifted writer, this book just couldn't hold my interest. All of the topics were ones that appeal to me but the tale was too low key; there weren't enough highs and lows to the narration to keep my attention. Despite three attempts at reading, I could not continue beyond 30%. I must not be the target audience. I'm sorry.
I had high hopes for this book. The writing was so good in the beginning. I was immersed in Selin's world of 1995, when the email was the big new thing. As the story progressed, I was struggling to get through the book. I didn't find Selin to be an interesting character and Ivan was so pretentious I couldn't stand him. Their relationship didn't make much sense to me and I didn't enjoy how much the book focused on their relationship. I rarely bail on books, but I stopped reading this book halfway through.
It's 1995 and Selin, the daughter of Turkish immigrants, arrives at Harvard for her freshman year. She deliberates over classes, makes friends, and strikes up an email correspondence with Ivan, an older Hungarian student in her Russian class. When summer rolls around Ivan returns home to Hungary and Selin decides to spend her summer in Hungary too, teaching English in villages in a program run by Ivan's friend.
That's pretty much it for the plot. There was not much to propel the story forward and it felt aimless at times and too long for me given the style of writing. It almost felt like a collection of mini vignettes with Selin's day to day activities, observations, "deep thoughts", conversations with friends, and emails with Ivan. In some ways the writing was very suitable for conveying the displacement of a freshman year in college and fitting for capturing the minutiae of college life. I also enjoyed many of Selin's observations and her dry humor, even though I found her unbelievable in her naivete, which seemed more suitable to a kid who grew in in a remote Turkish village versus her New Jersey childhood.
I would give different ratings for different features of this book and in the end settled on 3.5 stars. Although I didn't love this book, I would consider reading another book by the author.
This book was definitely well written, however it lacked cohesiveness in the plot and just seemed like Selin was just kind of thrown from place to place without any real reason. I liked that she was a fully developed character and was socially awkward and distinct. It was charming, however there were times where I expected her interactions to lead to some type of fruition or result and they didnt. I would love to see what else the author has up her sleeve.
I adored this book, which brought back a flood of memories of my own experiences as a college freshman, floating from literature and language classes to the library and often with my nose stuck in a book. It also reminded me of the unrequited young love I had later in college for a graduate student which mirrored the situation Selin finds herself in with Ivan. I suspect many bookish young women in college had experiences like this.
I appreciate Elif Batuman's writing style, which is matter of fact and and satirical.
The only part of the book I found lacking was the ending, which was abrupt.
I was not a fan. I found the main character to be whiney and I just wanted to yell at her to DO something. I felt like I spent the whole book hanging out because I kept waiting for SOMETHING to happen - and nothing did. It seems others really liked it, but I did not - and often found the writing went off on tangents that didn't make much sense to me or seem to add to the story at all.
“A portrait of the artist as a young woman.” This first line from the book’s summary is spot on!
The young woman in this instance is Selin, an 18-year-old Turkish-American entering her first year of studies at Harvard. The book starts off with Selin standing in line during first day orientation on campus, waiting to get her new email address, a free dictionary, and an abundance of “printed material” that, as far as she was concerned, really were not worth standing around in long lines for. From there, the book goes on to chronicle pretty much every aspect of Selin’s college life – from finding her dorm room and meeting her new roommates (who are polar opposites in every sense of the word) and then agreeing to disagree on how best to “decorate” their new shared quarters, to taking placement tests and signing up for classes in subjects that she (and no one else for that matter) had ever heard of (i.e. Constructed Worlds), taught by eccentric professors who come off as pretentious and self-absorbed, to subsequently meeting and befriending an internationally diverse group of classmates (i.e. Hannah from Korea, Svetlana from Serbia, Ivan from Hungary, twins Kevin and Sandy from China, etc.). This is basically the pattern throughout the entire book. Nothing much happens -- there are no profound revelations, no exciting story arcs, plot points, or anything of that nature. Rather, this book talks a lot about the mundane, day-to-day experiences that Selin encounters and through her own narration, we essentially accompany Selin on her “journey” of self-discovery as she recounts how these experiences help her learn more about herself.
This book was very different from most of the other books I’ve read with a “coming of age” theme in that the story was told in a subtly sarcastic yet humorous way. I don’t like books that try too hard to be funny, so thankfully this one was not like that at all. Selin as the narrator relays her story with a deadpan humor aspect to it that makes some of the things she says and does extremely funny without meaning to be (for example: the whole “controversy” over putting up a poster of Albert Einstein in Selin’s dorm room was hilarious). It’s been awhile since I’ve read a book that made me chuckle every couple pages!
What I loved most about the book was actually how much I was able to relate to Selin as a person. Her self-effacing personality, her indecisiveness in wanting to do certain things but ends up going the opposite direction due to overthinking things, her “doing what she is told” approach – reminded me a lot of how I was back during my own teenage years (and made me grateful for how I am now). I also found it interesting that the time period in which the story took place (the mid-1990s) mirrored my own college years as well! The nostalgia I felt with all the memories of my own college days definitely contributed to this book being such an enjoyable read for me.
With all that said though, I do agree with other reviewers that this book might not be for everyone. As much as I was able to relate to Selin, even I got annoyed at times when she would overthink some small thing for the umpteenth time (especially as it pertained to her relationship with her friend Ivan) and sometimes I felt like yelling at her to just “move on.” Some parts of the book also went off on philosophical tangents that quite honestly were hard to follow. However, I was able to overlook these flaws (and a few others) due to the overall impact and relatability of the story.
With an 18- year- old university freshman who is socially awkward and struggling to discover what she does and does not like, The Idiot speaks to the younger generation wirh a humor that the older generation probably can not hear. While I felt like the plot was a car stuck in the mud just spinning its tires needlessly, a younger generation will probably relate and feel as though it was a worthwhile journey. It just wasn't the book for me...
The prose in this novel is interesting. It moves from something flowing and delicately beautiful to dry and plodding, the narrator pointing things out as if reading a list of needed grocery items for a particularly unsatisfying recipe. The observations on people and the world as a whole assume many things and take themselves very seriously the entire time.
I can see where a great many people - especially those with intelligence but a lack of direction or sense of self - would find this worth reading. It was, however, not to my liking and lacking the depth of feeling needed to convince me to truly care about anyone featured in the work.
This is a terrific first novel, and Elif Batuman is a writer I will be following closely in the future. It's the story of a young Turkish-American woman, Selin, in her freshman year at Harvard (and the following summer). Selin is intellectually bright but still an unformed adolescent who tries to find herself through linguistics, philosophy, art, and Russian language classes, as well as her friendships with other students. If you are the kind of reader who wants a lot of action and adventure, this may not be the book for you, because an awful lot of it takes place within the main character's head. But what a wonderful head to be inside of! Selin is wryly funny, often hilariously so, and she skewers the pretensions of her professors and classmates, and her own adolescent confusion about the most basic activities of life and about how one becomes and adult. Much of the book involves Selin's relationship with a slightly older young man, and whether or not it will become a romance. But seriously, you don't read this book for the plot - you read it because the main character is so funny and off-kilter and interesting, and the author writes so well that every sentence is a pleasure to read. If this description makes the book sound like anything you'd want to read, I highly encourage you to read it.