So, I was supposed to read this for a book club and I put it off for two months… but now I’m glad I finally read it because I really, really enjoyed it.
About the Book
Title: The Idiot
Author: Elif Batuman
Genre: literary fiction, contemporary, coming of age
My Rating: 5 stars
Synopsis (from Goodreads) (truncated):
“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.”
I think you have to be in the right mood for this book, because it is very meandering, subtle, and stream-of-consciousness. It is also gloriously pretentious, and like usual, I found myself wondering where are these people book characters seem to meet who talk like this and write emails like this because I do not know very many– yet they seem to appear in every work of literary fiction and/or John Green.
I’m currently working on my own litfic novel set in college which is lingering in the stage of horrendous word-vomit first draft, and as soon as I started reading the beginning of The Idiot I kind of got discouraged because the writing was so good and so exactly what I pictured in my head when I imagined what I would write in my fiction— but I can never seem to execute it well myself despite knowing the exact vibe I want and the exact books and authors I want to emulate. Anyway, I loved the writing in this book and the way that the story was split into a set of stream-of-consciousness vignettes.
Admittedly, there was basically no plot– or, more accurately, the plot was very subtle, revolving mostly around Selin’s infatuation with Ivan (which did get pathetic after a bit, I will concede) and the way in which their real-life interaction and non-existent relationship failed to measure up to the depth of their email correspondence, during which Selin felt a much deeper connection than she ever felt to Ivan in real life. This was the most relatable theme in the book for me, because I also never feel like I have a real connection with anyone in real life. A lot of negative reviews in this book talk about how annoying it was that Selin was so obsessed with Ivan but I don’t believe the book was about romance alone. I think it was trying to convey what it is to not be able to connect with someone and to feel constantly like you in some way are not adequate. Selin was very relatable and I could easily place myself in her shoes in every situation.
In conclusion, I loved the writing and the soft addictiveness of this book. I also quite enjoyed all the literary references!
(Though like usual I finished the book feeling like my life in college is awfully boring compared to all these book characters. I don’t have graduate students sending me philosophical emails, intriguing Russian classes, trips to Hungary or time to do much besides study and apply for internships)
“Even though I had a deep conviction that I was good at writing, and that in some way I already was a writer, this conviction was completely independent of my having ever written anything, or being able to imagine ever writing anything, that I thought anyone would like to read.”
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