I love a provocative title, so when I first saw The Idiot by Elif Batuman in the bookstore, I was intrigued. Its summary – multicultural, set against a backdrop of coming of age during college and traveling on your own for the first time – sealed the deal. I bought it, went home, and started reading it that same day. Even from its first few chapters, I could tell this would be an odd yet thought-provoking book. In many ways, it actually inspired me to write my own book. More on that later.
The Idiot starts with Selin – the daughter of Turkish immigrants – entering her freshman year at Harvard in 1995. She’s a bit lost and ends up taking some random classes, but they lead her to making some interesting friends, too. One is her charismatic Serbian classmate Svetlana; another is a Hungarian math student named Ivan. While Selin and Svetlana spend plenty of time together, Selin and Ivan primarily interact via lengthy emails.
In addition to her classes and friendships, Selin also earns money by teaching high school level math to adults. This teaching experience will ultimately come in handy later on.
The school year ambles along, Selin getting to know Boston, her international friends, and life as a college student. She often seems directionless, and although she’s clearly smart (she’s in Harvard, after all), she doesn’t seem to know what she wants to do in life. She’s also slowly experiencing love for the first time, but will this relationship ever evolve into anything tangible?
When the school year ends, Selin gets an opportunity to travel to Europe. First she spends two weeks in Paris with Svetlana and two of her friends. Then Selin goes to the Hungarian countryside to teach English as part of a program run by Ivan’s friend. For his part, Ivan is in Budapest with his family, and Selin can’t stop thinking about him.
Selin’s summer abroad culminates her personal growth from the past year. Even if she’s still a bit perplexed by life, she ends up with enough experiences and knowledge to forge a path into adulthood.
In many ways, The Idiot transported me back into my own times in college and abroad. Watching Selin go through her first year at Harvard, exploring a variety of classes, not really knowing what her goals were… it all reminded me of my time as an undergrad at the University of Washington. I remember feeling excited at the endless opportunities, but also confused and overwhelmed. So many students are clearly smart and hardworking, and yet they’re naive and a little lost. This book perfectly captures that moment in time.
Later, when Selin travels to Europe, the relatable feeling intensified. Though she was teaching English in Hungary, I traveled to Spain first as part of an undergraduate study abroad program, then, a year later, as a master’s student. Being in another country, not really speaking the language, and learning how to live in a different culture are all things Selin experiences, and things that resonated strongly with me.
Through both her freshman year at Harvard and her summer in Europe, we see Selin grow into herself. She has a lot of growing up to do, but we see her evolve and become more self-assured. Again, this made a strong impact on me and brought back my college and study abroad years. At that age, people need to evolve a lot, and The Idiot truly portrays this transformation.
Despite the above praises, though, some parts of this novel didn’t fully click for me. Elif Batuman’s writing style here is often sparse and a bit dry. It works for the book, but also creates some distance. As a result, the characters sometimes feel cold, and it did make Selin’s personal evolution less palpable.
While I enjoyed the story, the characterization and writing style weren’t quite my style. It’s an engaging book, if not quite as enchanting as I’d hoped.
The Idiot is a striking novel. It’s a story many of us can relate to – especially if you’ve been a guileless college student – and it perfectly captures a life-changing year in a young woman’s life. Something about the book felt strange, yet also absorbing. I enjoyed it, and look forward to reading more from Elif Batuman.
Much of The Idiot seems like it came from a personal place for the author, who herself is a woman with Turkish parents and a 1990s Harvard education. Seeing such a relatable and autobiographical story inspires me to write my own novel someday. I have a vaguely similar story to tell, and I can only hope my book will be as compelling as this one. Thank you, Elif Batuman, for The Idiot and for inspiring my own literary ambitions.