The Idiot by Elif Batuman

The Idiot

Elif Batuman

The Idiot is a heroic yet self-effacing reckoning with the terror and joy of becoming a person in a world that is as intoxicating as it is disquieting.

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A portrait of the artist as a young woman. A novel about not just discovering but inventing oneself.

The year is 1995, and email is new. Selin, the daughter of Turkish immigrants, arrives for her freshman year at Harvard. She signs up for classes in subjects she has never heard of, befriends her charismatic and worldly Serbian classmate, Svetlana, and, almost by accident, begins corresponding with Ivan, an older mathematics student from Hungary. Selin may have barely spoken to Ivan, but with each email they exchange, the act of writing seems to take on new and increasingly mysterious meanings. 
At the end of the school year, Ivan goes to Budapest for the summer, and Selin heads to the Hungarian countryside, to teach English in a program run by one of Ivan's friends. On the way, she spends two weeks visiting Paris with Svetlana. Selin's summer in Europe does not resonate with anything she has previously heard about the typical experiences of American college students, or indeed of any other kinds of people. For Selin, this is a journey further inside herself: a coming to grips with the ineffable and exhilarating confusion of first love, and with the growing consciousness that she is doomed to become a writer.

With superlative emotional and intellectual sensitivity, mordant wit, and pitch-perfect style, Batuman dramatizes the uncertainty of life on the cusp of adulthood. Her prose is a rare and inimitable combination of tenderness and wisdom; its logic as natural and inscrutable as that of memory itself. The Idiot is a heroic yet self-effacing reckoning with the terror and joy of becoming a person in a world that is as intoxicating as it is disquieting. Batuman's fiction is unguarded against both life's affronts and its beauty--and has at its command the complete range of thinking and feeling which they entail.

Advance Galley Reviews

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. Summary: 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. My thoughts: 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.

4 stars! “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.

5 Stars!!!!!

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.


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