I stumbled across “The Idiot” on a blind date with a book. For those who do not know, a blind date with a book is where you can buy a book without knowing what the cover looks like. A late night at Barnes and Noble and an impulsive purchase led to a book with just a rock on the cover. The blind date description on the wrapped-up book said something along the lines of school, romance and the 1990s.
Luckily for you, I have a few more words.
Elif Batuman, the author, followed up “The Idiot” with a sequel titled “Either/Or.” Along with those being her breakout novels, she is a writer for The New Yorker.
Selin, the daughter of Turkish immigrants, is beginning her first year at Harvard. It is 1995 and a new wave of technological advances are slowly taking over, and she has to navigate her social life through email and in person. As Selin is learning the scope of digital messaging, she meets many new people in her classes, including her newfound friend Svetlana, and a new crush, Ivan.
Selin begins a private email exchange with Ivan that carries over from the fall to the spring and soon enough, she catches feelings. However, Ivan is spending the summer back home in Hungary, and it just so happens that Selin volunteered to teach English in Hungarian villages.
Written in the first person, the reader follows Selin around campus and the world throughout the school year and into the summer.
A defining feature of this book is the amount of characters in it. There are a lot, some appear for a very short time and then leave. Selin compares her life to “War and Peace.” Considering that that book has almost 600 characters, it is easy to see where she is coming from.
Two notable characters are her best friend Svetlana and her crush Ivan. Svetlana is very quirky and probably the best side character in this book. She overshares and has the most random stories. She brings extra insanity to Selin’s life and eventually becomes someone she can confide in.
I have a lot of thoughts about the character Ivan. If you look at the book as if he is a real person, he is a jerk. But as a character, he is brilliant. Selin and Ivan’s relationship is not cut and dry crystal clear. And that is exactly how real human relationships can be.
The book is divided into two parts that have very clear differences. One half is the school year, and the other is her summer in Hungary. Additionally, it shows her gradual descent into craziness over Ivan. It acts like journal entries: short, chronological and jumping ahead to different parts of time.
“The Idiot” is also full of dry humor accompanied by profound lines. It is a very philosophical book. Selin thinks a lot about life’s meaning and what she should be doing.
Selin is also a slightly unreliable narrator. She is very focused on herself and what she is doing and often forgets there is a world of people around her. As she travels and gets slightly older, she learns more about herself and her habits. Batuman does not directly write how Selin feels in the moment. There are moments when time needs to pass for her to process what happened.
Selin feels what she is going through is unique to her. However, the reader can find relatability in even the most obscure situations she ends up in. Isn’t that what happens in college? We find ourselves in unforgettable situations which ultimately shape who we are.
The representation of different cultures is informative and subtle. Along with Selin traveling to Turkey and Hungary, the book discusses many other countries as well, with many people she meets being immigrants or part of an immigrant family.
Overall, I enjoyed this book, though it was a struggle to get through at times. The scenes with Ivan work as a motivator in this book and push the plot forward. This is one of those books that leaves you thinking about it long after it is over.
I would not recommend this book to anyone who likes plot-heavy books. “The Idiot” is for those who like self-reflective character-driven stories.
Would you go on a (not so) blind date with this book?