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The Idiot

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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.

423 pages, Hardcover

First published March 14, 2017

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About the author

Elif Batuman

12 books2,820 followers
Elif Batuman is an American author, academic, and journalist. Born in New York City to Turkish parents, she grew up in New Jersey. She graduated from Harvard College and received her doctorate in comparative literature from Stanford University, where she taught.

Batuman is currently the writer-in-residence at Koç University. While in graduate school, she studied the Uzbek language in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Her dissertation, titled, "The Windmill and the Giant: Double-Entry Bookkeeping in the Novel," is about the process of social research and solitary construction undertaken by novelists. In 2007, she was the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award. In February 2010, she published her first book, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, which details her experiences as a graduate student.

She has also published pieces in The New Yorker, Harper's Magazine, and n+1. Her writing has been described as "almost helplessly epigrammatical." She resides in Twin Peaks, San Francisco.

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5 stars
17,364 (25%)
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 10,615 reviews
Profile Image for Blair.
1,793 reviews4,429 followers
March 11, 2017
With the abrupt sadness of The Idiot's final sentence, I felt a near-physical wrench, as if forcibly separated from someone who had swiftly become a good friend. I probably read the second half of the book too quickly – I loved it so much, and wish I'd taken more time to savour it – but once I'd started, I just couldn't stop.

The eponymous idiot is 18-year-old Harvard freshman Selin (though with all the Russian influences popping up throughout the story, the title is clearly intended to evoke Dostoyevsky's masterpiece. Especially as both centre on a figure of extreme naivety, unprepared for 'real' life). It goes without saying that Selin is far from idiotic, but any high school overachiever will recognise the disorientation of being plunged into a university environment and finding your remarkable talents are no longer remarkable, your outstanding intellect is just the norm, and whatever previously made you special now seems childish and insignificant. Of Turkish descent, Selin is surrounded by a truly multicultural, multilingual and multitalented cast of supporting characters, all of whom (she thinks) are better equipped to handle the strange vagaries of adult life and relationships than she is. Repeatedly, Selin experiences a revelation I remember well from that time of my life, and still sometimes get a sense of even now: it seems everyone else has, at some point, mysteriously learned codes of behaviour that remain obscure to her, and which she's unable to internalise just by observing.

Selin never really knows what she's doing. Many of her decisions, such as the choice to start learning Russian, and later to teach ESL, are made almost randomly, when she has little idea which path to take. (She does know, instinctively, that she is a writer, but feels doomed, rather than destined, to this fate. She carries the weight of personal note-taking and emailing as though it's a compulsory task, and dissects her thoughts and others' words like they're homework. When a short story of hers wins a prize, she's dismayed: 'I didn’t want anyone to think I thought it was good'.) Central to Selin's development throughout the book is her close, tense, peculiar friendship with Ivan, a slightly older student she meets at the aforementioned Russian class. She becomes infatuated: her decision to spend the summer teaching English in Hungary, his home country, is a result of that.

I spent the entire book hoping Selin and Ivan wouldn't get together, hoping Batuman would resist the allure of making good on the will-they-won't-they tension that pervades their interaction. And then I came to the end and found that all along, I had wanted them to be together after all. Their relationship – well, Selin's side of their relationship – reminded me of a quote, attributed to Kurt Cobain, I'm always seeing superimposed across photographs on sites like Pinterest and Tumblr: thank you for the tragedy; I need it for my art. The sense that at this age, a part of you craves the suffering and drama of rejection, because it fits who you feel you are, and because it's easier. If you're an introverted, arty teenager, an outsider, a virgin, then moping and yearning (and writing about it) are what you know; you wouldn't have a clue what to do with reciprocation. Incidentally, with Ivan, Batuman expertly captures the speech patterns of someone who speaks excellent English as a second language; he really does have a palpable voice.

THIS is a real coming-of-age story, not all the pulpy crap that gets churned out about 14-year-olds having orgies in the woods or whatever. Selin is so precisely an 18/19-year-old freshman: the perfect mix of naive and sarcastic, rebel and conformist, book-smart and ignorant. I loved her. (There's also something beautiful, and so refreshing, about love remaining unrequited in a narrative like this.) I'd love to quote lots from this book – I feel Selin's words would communicate the charm of the novel far better than I can by talking about it – but of course I can't, for now, because I read an advance copy.

Another really important thing about The Idiot that the above probably doesn't communicate at all: I found it hilarious. I honestly choked with laughter at some pages; a couple of times, I became so hysterical that I had to stop reading for a while to calm down. Selin has that dry, witty type of humour that makes the most banal asides into laugh-out-loud lines, and just the way she describes basically anything, the view from a window, the way people look, their voices... oh, man. I can't even explain it. You definitely have to read it.

For me, The Idiot was a perfect cocktail: a protagonist in whom I saw myself reflected at every turn of the plot; a particular sense of humour; subtle subversion of tropes I get sick of encountering in fiction. I want to read it again. I need to read it again. I will buy a physical copy when it's published. I will buy copies as gifts for other people, too. It's the sort of book I want to recommend, not by shouting about it to anyone who'll listen, but by seeking out those I know will appreciate it and ardently pressing it upon them.

(Supplemental: Christian Lorentzen's fantastic interview with Batuman at Vulture. Her description of rereading stuff you wrote when you were much younger is bang-on. 'When I was younger, the content was embarrassing to me, so I devised a style that was supposed to mitigate it. As an adult, the thing I found most embarrassing was the very style that I thought would mitigate the embarrassing content.')

I received an advance review copy of The Idiot from the publisher, Penguin Random House.

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Profile Image for Jessica Sullivan.
521 reviews442 followers
March 29, 2017
2.5/5 Stars.

I had a really complicated relationship with this book. On the surface, it appears to have everything I enjoy in a novel—a quirky protagonist, smart insights, dry humor, a character-driven narrative—but if I'm being honest, it was completely tedious and desperate for some more extensive editing.

It's a Bildungsroman story about a Turkish-American girl named Selin who begins her freshman year at Harvard University. Selin is awkward, insecure and unprepared for this next part of her life. She meets Ivan, an older Hungarian mathematics major, in one of her classes, and they begin something of a courtship that culminates in her traveling to Hungary that summer to be near him.

It's basically a right of passage for a college-age girl to go through that phase where she falls in love with an intellectually exciting but emotionally inept asshole. And Batuman does a really good job of capturing this to the point of nearly painful nostalgic discomfort for readers like myself who have been through that: the coy back and forth, the anxiety of waiting for that next email, the inevitable disappointment just around the corner.

Selin is a linguistics major, and so language and communication play a big role in both her internal monologue and her relationship with Ivan. Ivan, and the feelings she has for him, are so obscure and perplexing to her that there's a constant sense of disconnect. Again, this is something that felt familiar to me and reminded me of my own college years.

Batuman writes in sharp, incisive prose, and there is clearly a lot of potential in her writing. But I'm not sure how to adequately convey how boring and tedious parts of this book were. We go through every single step of Selin's first year of college and the summer following it, and much of the narrative and dialogue feels completely unnecessary. I skimmed pages and pages of this book because I cared so little about what was happening. I almost bailed on it several times. And then the sky would open and I'd come across a section that I loved. It was a very uneven and frustrating reading experience.

I would have given this a solid 2 stars, but it gets an extra .5 for Batuman's obvious talent.
Profile Image for Roxane.
Author 120 books159k followers
November 19, 2017
This was an interesting novel, dense, unique, written from a very specific point of view. One of those books where I marvel that it was published and am grateful it was published because, I mean, who wants to read the same type of book over and over? As someone who went to college in the 90s, not far from where much of this novel takes place, I felt an unexpected amount of nostalgia for that first year of college where you know nothing but think you know everything and are surrounded by people who know nothing but also think they know everything. This novel is incredibly ambitious. There are levels to this shit. The Idiot is easy to read and really difficult to read. Several times, I thought, “I am not smart enough to understand everything that is happening here,” but I kept reading. So much of the intellectual meandering drove me crazy BUT I couldn't stop reading.

This is also an incredibly witty, funny novel. So much sly sly humor and cleverness. Man, this is a writer just showing off just how well she can write. I mean... look: "A student asking a question was sitting in an amazing posture: legs crossed at both the knee and the ankle, arms intertwined, elbows on the desk, fingers knit together, like his whole organic being aspired to be a French cruller."

I was absolutely delighted by the delightful moments here, and the impeccable delivery of those moments. Selin is the kind of narrator that could drive a person mad. I kept wanting her to just… get out of her own way but that she didn’t or, perhaps, couldn’t, could well be the point. How many of us were our own worst enemies at nineteen? And Ivan is trash. Utter trash. And the way he was written, to show how terrible and irresistible he was, well, just bravo. The ending is perfect. Oh what last lines. This is one of those novels that is just… utterly brilliant and not in an overt, gratuitous way. Instead, the more I sit with this book, the more it opens itself up to me, revealing the why of it. Like I said, there are levels to this shit.
Profile Image for emma.
1,867 reviews54.4k followers
January 23, 2023
There is an old cliché that goes, "Laughter is the best medicine."

In a literal sense, this is wrong, because the best medicine is a combination of ibuprofen, junk food, and complaining. There is no illness that this all-star lineup cannot solve.

And in a figurative sense, it is also wrong, because while I am a huge laughter stan the actual best medicine is a book getting into your hands right when you are best equipped to appreciate it.

In other words, I am sorry to everyone in the comments who agreed with my original three-star review, because it turns out this book is actually perfect.

I read this book for essentially no reason, in 2019, when the world was okay (not awesome but not on fire) and I was young and innocent and my favorite genre was still, somehow, against all odds, YA contemporary.

Why, I do not know. Seems a recipe for disaster.

Now, three years later, this book has returned to my mind due to the fact that it sounds so up my alley the universe may have prescribed it to me. Character-driven, almost-boring, beautifully written literary fiction about complicated (read: annoying) women is all I want to read.

So I picked this one up.

And holy Moses. (Is that an expression?) This one hit me hard.

Every year I build a favorites shelf of every new-to-me read I five star in that year. I never add rereads, even if they're newly five stars, because it's so specific to that year in my head.

This one got added to favorites-2022 (and thus broke the rules I made up) so fast it broke the sound barrier. Sorry to dogs and fireworks appreciators for startling you and getting your hopes up, respectively.

This was just so exactly what I needed.

I don't know that I've ever annotated more, or savored a book more slowly, or felt so seen and still learned things. This book is riddled with underlines, and I read it in a matter of pages per day, and I never wanted it to end. It made me feel so normal and so seen and so okay.

And it gets better. Because for some reason there's a sequel???

Just when this couldn't be any more perfect for me right now, it turns out the universe decided to give me more. I picked this up for a reread completely arbitrarily only to learn it's getting a sequel 6 years after publication, right after I five starred it.

Everything is perfect.

Or actually everything is pretty bad, but the universe is being really nice to me about it.

Bottom line: I don't know what to say about this, really. It's beautifully written, it's incredibly real, it is the ibuprofen/junk food/complaining of books, for my broken brain.

original three-star review

Sometimes, I finish a book and I don’t know how I feel about it.

This happens a lot of times, in fact. And I have two main strategies for dealing with it. In one, I rate it approximately, confidently say review to come, wait four months (I’m in the midst of a major backlog, okay, I’m not any more a fan of it than you are. In fact I’m probably way less of a fan, because it spares you from having to experience my reviews - a definitively good thing - while it only makes me aware of the fact that I have, like, 100 pages of review-writing ahead of me. And it’s the kind where I can’t remember the book. A true nightmare), then maybe change the rating and post the review.

That’s the good method. (Hard as it may be to believe. The standards are low.)

The bad method, and the one I employed here, is not even rating it. Not even giving it a temporary rating. Just...leaving it in weird review purgatory.

Out of pure laziness and an inability to employ my critical thinking skills.

This was a strange book to read, and, true to form, it’s a strange book to review.

This is one of those slightly radical literary fiction reads with a unique way of looking at the world and a unique style to match that always end up changing my internal monologue for 7-10 business days.

The main reason I don’t read literary fiction (beyond the fact that I spend most of my time reading and trashing YA contemporary) is that, whether I like it or not, I basically live inside it while I’m reading it and for days after.

That’s debilitating.

For this book, which is sad and intense and basically unsatisfying as a rule, that was nothing short of consistently mildly to severely unpleasant.

But I don’t think it’s a bad book, necessarily. I think the writer is very good, and I was fairly consumed by this start to finish. (Obviously.)

It’s just...at the end, I was left feeling a bit, well, awful. And I couldn’t figure out what the point of it was - me feeling that way, or the book, or any of it.

Not a promising way to feel about a book.

Bottom line: I still don’t know any of the answers to any of these questions, so...three stars.


well now i'm all melancholy.

review to come / rating also to come


it is with great sadness and regret that i must inform you...

this book stole the working title of my autobiography
Profile Image for Barry Pierce.
576 reviews7,749 followers
March 17, 2018
I was ready to give up on The Idiot at page 100. There was no distinct plot - nothing major seemed to be happening except for a girl describing her classes at university. But I persisted. Thank god for that.

The Idiot is the story of Selin, a student at Harvard in the mid-90s. The mid-90s were strange time to be at university. Selin begins her tale with the line, 'I didn’t know what email was until I got to college.' Batuman is obsessed with liminality, or the state of being in between. Selin's world is moving from analogue to digital, from books to computers, letters to emails. Just as she herself is moving from her teens to adulthood. She, like the world around her, is caught in this liminal space and she is just lost.

Enter Ivan: who is the fucking worst. Honestly he's up there with, like, Daniel Quilp in terms of dislikability. Selin falls for this actual rag of a man and all we can do is squirm and fidget as she blindly plays along with his fuckboy antics.

But I don't think about Selin or Ivan when I think about The Idiot. What hits me first is Batuman. I don't personally know Elif Batuman, but I do know that we would probably get along quite well. Roxane Gay described this novel as 'dense' and I think that is perfect. Batuman has an incredibly dense prose style, in that she takes her influences and her references and she piles them up onto each other so that each paragraph is like a literary puff pastry. Honestly, I have never used my degree in English and Art History more than when I was reading The Idiot.

At one point Batuman states that one characters reminds Selin of what Andre Breton's Nadja might look like. Another time Selin is reading a paragraph from Madame Bovary and she says it reminds her of Björk's video for Human Behaviour. The Unabomber is in there too. It's reference after reference after reference. Batuman knows her shit. And she knows a lot of it. There's probably a hundred other smart asides and sly comparisons that completely went over my head, thus is the nature of her prose. It's a novel that rewards the reader based on their own cultural knowledge. It's like watching an episode of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 or 30 Rock, two shows that rely on the viewer's grasp on popular culture. Yeah, you're not gonna get all the references and the gags, but the ones you do catch will make you howl.

From wanting to end it all on page 100 to eventually hoping the novel wouldn't finish, my own critical turnaround on The Idiot honestly gave me whiplash. It's a novel that I feel would stand up to multiple readings and each time gleaning something new from it. Or maybe I would read it again and focus more on all the fantastic secondary characters. The Idiot is a superb novel about a woman who is just lost. I mean, she is an idiot. But oh what a wonderful idiot.
Profile Image for Paul.
716 reviews66 followers
July 30, 2017
I suppose it's appropriate that one of the recurring themes in Elif Batuman's The Idiot is the sensation of being trapped – in conversation, in a situation, in a location. Because about two-thirds of the way through this frustrating and tedious novel, I realized I too was trapped – too curious to simply jettison the story, all too aware that the plot was heading into ever more stagnant territory. In the end, I couldn't help but feel that the title, although ostensibly a reference to the Dostoyevsky classic, was actually referring to me.

It wasn't all bad. The first third of the book was actually pretty great, whether because of my own nostalgia for my freshman year of college (or maybe my nostalgia for Rory Gilmore's freshman year of college) or because Batuman successfully blended a dry wit with a quirky character to create what appeared to be a winning tale of a girl coming of age and falling in love. Instead, Selin's relationship with Ivan grows, she becomes duller and so does the story.

To be honest, the conceit is somewhat realistic: Selin has a male friend who is much more interesting and more suited for her, but she can't help obsessing over the self-absorbed and off-putting older guy, eventually traveling to Hungary to teach English so she can see him on the weekends. But once the story left Harvard, all traces of what made me get invested in it disappeared, and I was left slogging through a swamp of mundane details and dull conversations, each step forward making me wish I had closed the book when I had the chance. By the end, I had progressed to actively hating everyone in the book yet I was still forcing myself to get to the end: the idiot, indeed.
Profile Image for Ilenia Zodiaco.
266 reviews14k followers
December 7, 2018

Questo NON è un romanzo, ci hanno mentito. È piuttosto un ANTI-ROMANZO. Il libro non ha trama, è un susseguirsi di microeveventi che appartengono alla quotidianità piuttosto banale della protagonista, una matricola che si reca in un college prestigioso come Harvard. Proprio la protagonista poi è un personaggio-matassa ovvero confusa, ingarbugliata, incapace di presentarsi al lettore con chiarezza, incapace di risolversi. È in perenne conflitto con se stessa perché ha perso la bussola. A Harvard sembrano tutti più intelligenti di lei e soprattutto più inquadrati. La frase che mi ha colpito di più è proprio quella che sottolinea il suo stupore per la capacità della sua amica Svetlana "di generare opinioni su tutto". Lei invece è travolta dalle informazioni e tutto sembra attraversarla senza che riesca ad afferrare alcunché per rimettere insieme i pezzi e fornirci un quadro completo, che abbia un senso. Da qui la struttura del romanzo: un susseguirsi di eventi, apparentemente senza capo né coda, sebbene inframmezzati da battute e da paragrafi, per me, fulminanti che quasi si perdono nel marasma di apparenti banalità in cui la Batuman annega le pagine. Forse è proprio questo, però, che rende il libro così sperimentale e assurdo. C'è una perfetta corrispondenza tra l'interiorità della protagonista e la struttura del romanzo. A tratti sembra di leggere un diario di Facebook, ma più intimo. Come degli status sui social, frammenti di una vita normalissima, una storia d'amore tra persone pretestuose, alla ricerca di un'autenticità difficile da ricreare; individui che per parlare di se stessi, cercano altre vie perché troppo chiuse nelle loro interiorità per essere sinceri. E quindi si fanno scudo con un florilegio di citazioni tratti da romanzi, saggi, film, in un gioco metaletterario di continua scrittura e riscrittura della propria identità. Un'identità che probabilmente a 19 anni non si ha proprio. Ma forse nemmeno da più grandi. Forse è il segno dei tempi, è una caratteristica contemporanea: la personalità fluida.
Questo libro contiene tutti gli elementi per detestarlo: mancanza di salienza, eccessiva lunghezza, protagonisti inconcludenti, passaggi incomprensibili. Tutto ciò, però, ha un senso e rende il libro assolutamente peculiare, mi ha segnato più di mille altri romanzi scritti meglio o più avvincenti. Ha qualcosa da dire di molto potente su come ci si sente durante l'adolescenza prolungata dei vent'anni. Parla delle relazioni d'amore mediate dalla tecnologia con un'ironia dolente, che da un lato diverte, dall'altro fa tristezza e paura al contempo. E soprattutto rende benissimo lo stato d'animo di chi è incapace di comunicare con il prossimo, usando un trucco, ovvero facendo dialogare tra loro due studenti che parlano lingue diverse e si arrangiano con l'inglese. So già che molti lo scaraventeranno dalla finestra ma per me "L'idiota", nonostante sia un libro difficile da leggere e d'amare, è comunque un grande libro, difficile da definire e da etichettare, assolutamente originale e forse uno dei pochi (e riusciti) tentativi degli autori contemporanei di andare oltre il romanzo, senza superarlo davvero. Non lo consiglierei ma leggetelo.
Profile Image for elle.
279 reviews7,432 followers
September 17, 2023
“it can be really exasperating to look back at your past. what’s the matter with you? i want to ask her, my younger self, shaking her shoulder. if i did that, she would probably cry. maybe i would cry, too.”

i have a genre of books i like to call “brain food”.

featuring multiple non fiction books such as ‘the lonely city’, ‘the secret history’, ‘the overstory’, and the email sections of beautiful world where are you, this category of books literally feeds me. the feeling can most accurately be described as a book you want to savor bit by bit so you can digest everything on paper and everything between the lines.

before reading, i was told that this would be my kind of book. and everyone very exactly right. this being said, you definitely have to be in the right place at the right time to love it. this is a book where “nothing happens”—there is no huge plot twist or huge plot point, everything in this book has to be read between the lines. and this is what makes bautman’s novel so brilliant.

the idiot is so darkly funny and smart, although incredibly frustrating at times. the book follows selin, the main character, as she navigates her freshman year at harvard university during the liminal period between analog and digital (historical fiction, in a way i guess).

it is deeply rooted in education and academia, with insights into philosophy and languages and literature. selin’s intelligence is a dichotomy between being so academically brilliant yet socially inept, and this made for a funny narrative without dampening down the emotional resonance.

like the secret history, this book has an insane amount of layers to it that it is impossible to be able to fully understand or grasp the contents of it in the first go. while the writing is dense and jam packed with a lot of intellectual introspection, it was so easy to read

this is probably the best coming of age novel i have read where the characters are realistic, awkward, and their own worst enemies (sound familiar?). i saw glimpses of myself in selin, and felt a literal adrenaline rush whenever i read something that i hadn’t known before or was written so perfectly.

if you love a character driven book or want a book to savor and learn from every page, you’ll love this one.


mid-read update:
oh this is going to be a five star i can feel it.


possibly also the title of my memoir, so i'm automatically inclined to like it 50%.
Profile Image for Meike.
1,589 reviews2,810 followers
March 15, 2018
DNF at around 70 % of the audiobook - I rarely DNF books, but I am so bored right now that I am starting to get aggressive, and we don't want that, do we? :-) Let's try to give a fair account of what this book is about: Selin is a freshman at Harvard, she tries to find her own path in life and her search strategy is highly influenced by the things she learns about language at school. Batuman is trying to bring together linguistic/literary theory and its application in everyday life when she describes Selin's struggles to figure out what is going on, who she is, and what life means. There is also a guy whom Selin likes more than he likes her, and there is a journey to Europe. Oh yes: Selin (who also speaks Turkish) learns Russian, and the book's title is of course a nod to Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Now on to the reasons why I feel unable to continue with this: Selin is an Ivy League student who does not need to hold down a job, has zero problems in life and seems to spend all day reading fun texts and thinking about, yes, herself. Still, she is pretentiously suffering from disorientation. Get a life, Selin, your #firstworldproblems are a bore. Full disclosure: I never had much sympathy for people who seem to want to crawl back to their high school (and mommy), because, like, college is, like, so hard and stuff. It's not. College is a privilege, so grow up and get over yourself. It's a mystery to me how Selin can have so little fun there without any apparent reason (because, as some people claim, she realizes that it's a place full of other smart people? Who wants to be surrounded by morons??).

Other reviewers said that they liked how Batuman describes the rise of new media that coincides with Selin starting college. I am too young to judge that, so maybe what I say now is a little unfair, but the whole "OMG, it's the 90's and I don't know what e-mail is"-schtick just made me sigh. Batuman's love for the intricate and lengthy description of irrelevant details also felt slightly torturous to me.

All in all, this book did not have anything to say to me. As German punk rock drummer Bela B. once stated: "There's nothing worse than whiny rockstars." Maybe there is: Whiny Harvard freshmen.
Profile Image for Thomas.
1,519 reviews8,985 followers
July 21, 2022
I want to say this in the nicest way possible: this book felt like a mess to me. I will start by roasting the main character’s relationship with a man named Ivan that took up the majority of the book. Their relationship felt stale and filled with inconsistent, obtuse communication. I did not detect any deep rationale for why they liked each other. I personally do not find much fulfillment reading about romantic relationships that consist of communication issues and then boring conversations when the characters do talk to one another. I also found Ivan the most woe-is-me, I’m-the-engineer-of-my-own-demise-yet-demonstrate-no-ability-to-take-accountability type of annoying character. At one point Ivan says to the main character, “I’m useless,” and I was like, not to be mean but you kind of are??

I will clarify that I do enjoy books where characters are messy and imperfect, if the author actually writes those characters with depth and provides those characters with background and context to explain their behaviors. You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat stands out to me as a novel with a super messy protagonist that I loved, because Arafat showed us the roots of her actions as well as her difficult journey of growth. With The Idiot, I felt like I was reading stale writing about one-note characters attending a prestigious university who didn’t exhibit any self-awareness or change over time. I’m giving the book two stars because it did make me laugh once or twice in the first 50 pages and I’d feel cruel giving a book one star in this moment.
Profile Image for Baba Yaga Reads.
108 reviews1,694 followers
January 22, 2023
The Idiot is for pretentious academics”, “The Idiot is for Russian literature lovers”, “The Idiot is for linguistics graduates”.

Listen: The Idiot is for Balkan diaspora people who never saw themselves represented in Western media, until they stumbled into this weird little book full of Turkish, Serbian, Croatian, Hungarian characters. Characters whose families, culture, and attitude resembled their own so much that they finally realized how deeply surreal and messed up their upbringing was. Thank you, Miss Batuman; I’ll forever be grateful for the second-hand embarrassment.
Profile Image for BlackOxford.
1,085 reviews68.4k followers
October 21, 2018
Facebook Bound

I knew I should have kept a diary after I left secondary school. Not that I had experienced anything extraordinary in my young adulthood, but it could have proved useful for writerly gaps in later life. On the other hand if my diary was as tedious and banal as Batuman’s, I would have destroyed it as an embarrassing mistake.

To say that The Idiot is pointless might sound severe. Batuman writes grammatical sentences and believable dialogue. But the sentences and dialogue drone on endlessly about whatever happened to be around in her young adult life.

I suppose that someone of a similar age, perhaps embarking on an educational adventure like Harvard and experiencing Paris for the first time, would find The Idiot instructive and even interesting. For anyone else the autobiographical detail is likely to be as enthralling as a 19th century cookbook.

It did just strike me however: Perhaps Batuman is more important than I realize. Forget the old fashioned idea of the diary. What’s she’s done is to take a few years worth of anticipatory Facebook or Instagram posts and turned them into a book. So perhaps ‘welcome’ to a new genre. Please don’t let it be...
Profile Image for Rozhan Sadeghi.
262 reviews356 followers
February 15, 2022
امسال من برای اولین بار عاشق شدم.

با وجود اینکه ۲۱ سالمه، تا قبل از امسال هیچوقت نمی‌تونستم حس شخصیت‌های عاشق کتاب‌هایی که می‌خوندم رو درک کنم. چون تا به حال عاشق نشده بودم. روی کاغذ، می‌دونستم حس عشق چیه، شکست عشقی چجوریه، چه symptom هایی قراره داشته باشم و چجوری باید move on کنم ولی تجربه دست اول، نه خب نداشتم!

امسال عاشق شدم، توی عشقم شکست خوردم، ساعت‌های زیادی زیر دوش حموم، زیر بالش، توی دستشویی سرکار و پشت تلفن با دوستام گریه کردم. گذشت و اون زخم التیام پیدا کرد. ولی چیزی که برای من حل نشد، حس سردرگمی و سوال "چرا" بود. چرا اون آدم؟ چرا اون رفتار؟ چرا اون حس؟ و فکر می‌کردم من تنها آدمی هستم که همچین حسی رو تجربه کرده و همچین سوالاتی از خودش پرسیده.

تا اینکه این کتاب رو خوندم. الیف باتومان انگار این کتاب رو برای من نوشته بود. برای روژانی که اولین تجربش از عشق براش تلخ بوده. روژانی که آدم عجیبی سر راهش قرار گرفته. روژانی که سردرگم بوده. و روژانی که از خودش و اون آدم متنفر شده. به قدری این کتاب برای من بود که اگه اسم "روژان" رو با اسم شخصیت اول کتاب عوض می‌کردم باز هم جمله‌هام معنی می‌دادن. سلین توی سال اولش در هاروارد اتفاقاتی رو گذروند که من چند ماه اخیر باهاشون دست و پنجه نرم کردم. و موقع خوندن تک به تک جملاتش حس می‌کردم من و سلین نشستیم پیش همدیگه و داریم برای هم از عشقی حرف می‌زنیم که برامون عزیز و محترم بوده. از آدمی که فکر می‌کنیم دیگه مثلشو نمی‌تونیم پیدا کنیم و از تجربیاتی که دیگه مثلشو نمی‌تونیم داشته باشیم.

برای همین این کتاب هم ميره توی شلف right books and the right time، که دوباره بهم یادآوری شه کتاب‌ها همیشه و تا ابد برای من بهترین پناه هستن.
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,010 reviews598 followers
July 2, 2018
Library Overdrive Audiobook....read by the author Elif Batuman

I loved this book. I equally adored Elif Batuman’s seductively-innocent-child-sounding voice. I had no idea what to expect. The first time I looked at this book was a few weeks ago when in San Francisco with a Goodreads friends in Citylights book store. I still haven’t read any reviews- all I knew was that this was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Who doesn’t remember their freshman year of college - if you went? And travel if you did as a young adult?
And college romance? An emails when they were SO NEW?

I thought this book was absolutely charming - funny - ADORABLE- kickass sassy-smart- reflective -and very ordinary and simple and the best of ways!!!!
Profile Image for Rebecca.
3,669 reviews2,661 followers
March 15, 2017
(3.5) This is such an odd debut novel that, though I ultimately thought it a very funny anti-Bildungsroman, I’d hesitate to recommend it too widely. Nostalgia for pre-technology college days, some familiarity with Eastern European literature (especially the absurdist tradition), and a fascination with linguistic theory and foreign languages would be good prerequisites for enjoying this – but then again, none of those criteria are quite valid for me.

In brief, this is Selin’s account of her freshman year at Harvard (c. 1995) and the summer of travel in Paris, Hungary and Turkey that follows. A daughter of Turkish immigrants, she wants to become a writer, but even as she minutely records every happening and thought of her year she doubts the point. Is she learning anything from her experiences? In her Russian and linguistics classes, in her interactions with her roommates and her Serbian friend Svetlana, and in her growing obsession with Ivan, a senior math major from Hungary, she includes a surprisingly Knausgaardian amount of mundane detail yet always remains at an emotional distance from events.

The tone is so very deadpan that you may never warm to Selin. However, it feels appropriate for what the novel is attempting: a commentary on the difficulty of having real, meaningful conversations when language breakdown is rife. Again and again Selin fails to connect with others, whether it’s because her Spanish-speaking ESL tutee simply can’t put together an English sentence or because she and Ivan keep mishearing each other. With so little faith in the power of individual words, how can she possibly hold out hope for a coherent narrative for her entire life? It’s important to remember, of course, that this takes place in the early days of e-mail and long before smartphones, which I think makes it even more potent by extension to today – we think we’re more connected than ever, but does our technology really make it any more likely that we’re engaging in significant discussions and relationships?

Once again Batuman has borrowed a Dostoevsky title (her 2010 memoir, about reading the Russian masters, was called The Possessed), and I suspect her novel is in heavy debt to Russian fiction in general. I’m not familiar enough with Eastern European literature to make sweeping statements, but something about the randomness of the novel’s events and the way they are bluntly recounted rather than explained made me think of Kafka. This can be problematic for the story line, though: it feels like things keep happening that serve no purpose in the grand scheme of the novel.

That’s why I call this an anti-Bildungsroman: Batuman is subverting the whole idea of a simple coming-of-age trajectory. At the same time, she does convincingly capture what it’s like to be young and confused about what you should be doing: “I couldn’t imagine how I was going to dispose of my body in space and time, every minute of every day, for the rest of my life … Just being alive felt like some incredibly long card game where you didn’t know if the point was to get cards or lose them, or what you had to do to get cards or lose them.” This reminded me of elements of my college years and study abroad experience; the familiarity plus the off-the-wall humor kept me reading with interest, even though this is a very long novel and not traditionally satisfying in terms of plot.

Sample lines:
“What was ‘Cinderella,’ if not an allegory for the fundamental unhappiness of shoe shopping?”

“One afternoon in the library, I picked up Pablo Neruda’s ‘Ode to an Atom’ and started to read. There were words I didn’t know, but I didn’t slow down. I just guessed the meaning, or a meaning, and kept going, and I saw then that Ivan was right: it was exciting not to understand. What you did understand was exciting.”

(On a plane) “I opened the foil lid and looked at the American meal. I couldn’t tell what it was. The man in the seat ahead of me started tossing and turning. His pillow fell into my dessert. The pink whipped foam formed meaningful-looking patterns on the white fabric. I saw a bird—that meant travel.”

“At first it seemed strange to me to go into a supply closet every day with a fourteen-year-old boy and eat a three-course meal, but soon I came to view it as part of the natural course of things.”

“We sat at the table. Margit and Mrs. Nagy chatted in Hungarian, Zoltán, whose pallor, small head, and straight black hair made him resemble an Edward Gorey drawing, stared at the floor. I mechanically ate the pretzel sticks Margit had set out, like it was a job someone had given me.”

“Spiderwebs attached themselves, like long trails of agglutinative suffixes, onto our arms and faces.”
Profile Image for Uzma Ali.
101 reviews1,418 followers
April 10, 2022

Greetings, folks! I am sure all of you are absolutely bursting at the seams over the fact that I have finally finished a book. A whole book! I’ve been in the worst, most terrible, horrendous slump for the past few months after having read a bunch of shitty novels. I did not want to pick anything else up. So when I spotted The Idiot in our beloved Barnes & Noble and read the back of the book, I thought it was perfect for me right now. An awkward college student navigating both her passion for writing and her first love? She’s me ! I am she.

I’m not even saying this in the ironic “this is my Joker moment” manner because it’s not ironic. Not at all, no siree. This quite literally IS my Joker moment. Now how is one to go about explaining the plot of a book that has no plot? In a style much like that of famed Ottessa Moshfegh and Sally Rooney, we follow a young Harvard freshman named Selin through her first year of higher learning. Since the book seems to let the stories crawl out onto the page themselves (thank you, Mr. Steinbeck), there are a plethora of the most valuable nuggets I have ever read in my life. At about page 50, I realized I had to annotate this book a little because I swear Selin has thought literally every thought I’ve ever thunk ever. Now I’m left with a copy that is fully marked-up and dog-eared after only one day of reading. It was addictive! (I am literally Selin, btw).

I must remark that if you were to enjoy this as much as I had, you’d have to be a part of the target audience. There are some events in this novel that I would not have appreciated as much if I hadn’t gone through it myself. Undoubtedly my identity as a college student made me identify with the main character a bit further than someone who was, say, in middle school. If you were a younger reader, do be wary about that, but that’s not to say the book is useless without personal relation.

Something I wish I had done prior to reading this book is picked up some Dostoevsky. Fyodor Dostoevsky himself had written a novel entitled The Idiot, and with all of the references to Russian characters and literature, I’m sure there were numerous allusions I missed out on.

But it don’t matter. This novel was just such a gem. I kept turning page after page to see what other quip Selin would offer. Everything was also just so comical, and I personally think that a lot of humor in any kind of media makes the grittier moments of the story that much more hard-hitting. Selin’s relationship with Ivan was aggravating but relatable. The constant doubt influencing her every decision was both as well. I could not believe the amount of insight author Elif Batuman provided in this one novel. It truly feels like she poured her entire writing career into this, which makes sense as to why there’s a sequel coming out. But that does make me wonder: would Batuman be able to top herself after Selin’s story comes to a close?

I’d recommend this one whole-heartedly. I’m only giving it 4 stars because the last third of the book seemed to drone on a bit more than its counterparts, but that could be because I was devouring this book in the span of like 30 hours. Who’s to say! Do pick it up, and I will probably be checking out the sequel. I’m interested to see if Selin learns from life going forward.
Profile Image for Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer.
1,821 reviews1,381 followers
May 28, 2022
[Svetelena said] I lived by aesthetic principles, whereas she, who had been raised on Western philosophy, was doomed to live boringly be ethical principles. It had never occurred to me to think of aesthetics and ethics as opposites. I thought ethics were aesthetic. “Ethics” meant the golden rule, which was basically an aesthetic rule. That’s why it was called “golden” like the golden ratio. “Isn’t that why you don’t cheat or steal – because it’s ugly” I said

I read this novel due to its longlisting for the 2018 Women’s Prize for fiction - and am delighted it has now been shortlisted.

The book is told in the first person by Selin, a Turkish-descended American starting as a freshman at Harvard in the mid 1990s and tracing her first year and first summer vacation there, particularly her unrequited relationship with Ivan (a graduating Hungarian mathematician).

This is a coming of age story – capturing almost perfectly the transition from home and school to University, including at a world leading University like Harvard suddenly realising that your hitherto outstanding achievements are now par for the course (Selin for example shocked when she does not make the college orchestra).

Selim is hopelessly naïve – both about the way Ivan is playing with her affections and around the conventions of student life which she initially struggles to recognise and then struggles to comprehend when she does recognise them – be that drinking alcohol, going to a coffee shop, buying clichéd posters of Einstein for her shared room, or for example when dancing in a group at a disco

[it] reminded me of pre-school where you also had to stand in a circle and clap your hands. I began to intuit dimly why people drank when they went dancing and it occurred to me that maybe the reason preschool had felt the way it had was that one had to go through the whole think sober”

This revealing interview with the author captures I think perfectly what she was aiming for in the book – a book about awkward, embarrassing experiences which is a picture of a really young person who is well-equipped in certain ways and not well-equipped in other way


Ivan and Selin meet in a Russian class – and language is another key theme of the novel.

Selin is fascinated by the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which states that the structure of a language determines a native speaker's perception and categorization of experience (or as Selin puts it the language you spoke affected how you processed reality). She spends much of the book either learning another language (Russian in the first part, Hungarian in the second part) or teaching English as a second language (initially as a volunteer activity in a housing project and in the second half of the novel over the Summer in a Hungarian village).

The similarities and differences between, and the linguistic quirks of Turkish, Hungarian and Russian (as well as Serbo-Croat which is spoken by another member of the Russian class – Svetlana) are examined throughout the book – including for example the influence or Turkish on Hungarian and Serbo-Croat dating from the Ottoman occupation of the countries.

Selin is also a literature buff – and always seems to be trying to relate her experiences to literature. Mathematics also makes an appearance – as Selin frustrated with her ESL attempts at Harvard teaches mathematics in the project instead.

If any of the the above makes the book sound heavyweight it is anything but, the writing is playful and humorous.

There is a wonderful moment when walking to the gym, Selin is greeted by a throwaway How’s it going from a casual acquaintance and makes to answer, causing the guy, Selin and Svetlana to wait for what felt like hours before Selin simply walks off without a word – basically all because Selin cannot think of a non-conventional way to answer the question – a perfect example of what the author describes in the interview as Selin’s dilemma

whether you can be sincere without being pretentious. It’s something Selin thinks about a lot. It’s like there are two poles: one is being totally lucid but not conveying anything, just stating completely obvious things, and the other is being completely impenetrable. Sometimes you have to risk going one way or the other. Selin decides she would rather risk being impenetrable than being obvious and lame.

Selim, via Batuman, has a lovely ear for a phrase or description: patches of overgrown grass [in a run-down housing project] resembled a comb-over on the head of a bald person who didn’t want to see reality; an angel cake she is cooking fell down in the middle like a collapsing civilisation” and becomes a fallen-angel cake.

She over-analyses everything, and spends time inappropriately parsing things around her – for example when watching The Sound of Music with her mother:

I was interested when the nuns sang about solving a problem like Maria. It seemed that “Maria” was actually a problem they had – that it was a code word for something

Often to the detriment of the subjects she is meant to be studying (for example when suffering with a cold in an academic interview):

“Right” I said, nodding energetically and trying to determine whether any of the rectangles in my peripheral vision was a box of tissues. Unfortunately, they were all books. The professor was talking about the differences between creative and academic writing. I kept nodding. I was thinking about the structural equivalence between a tissue box: both consisted of slips of white paper in cardboard case; yet – and this was ironic – was there was very little functional equivalence, especially if the book wasn’t yours. Those were the kinds of things I thought about all the time, even though they were neither pleasant or useful. I had no idea what you were supposed to be thinking about.

The Russian language is taught via a serialised story “Nina in Siberia” – a stitled and rather preposterous story (at least to this reader) which at each chapter only uses the grammar taught in the class to date, resulting in some tortuous terminology, but one which Selin invests in hugely “while you were reading it you felt totally inside its world, a world where reality mirrored the grammar constraints, and what Slavic 101 couldn’t name didn’t exist” (clearly her applying the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis).

Much of the story (reproduced through the first part of the book) is around Nina’s thwarted relationship with an Ivan – and it is hard not to see that Nina’s interest in the story is mirrored by her interest in the real-life Ivan (or possibly vice-versa) leading to a great line when the story ends happily (albeit with each of Ivan and Nina finding happiness elsewhere).

Why did every story have to end with marriage? You expected that from Bleak House or Crime and Punishment. But “Nina in Siberia” had seemed different. Of everything I had read that semester, it alone had seemed to speak to me directly, to promise to reveal something about the relationship between language and the world

A number of other aspects I enjoyed – many of which reminded me of University:

Selin muses on a Nabakov quote that “mathematics transcended their initial condition and thinks how each of solid cone geometry, trigonometry, and Fibonacci sequences were set up as pure theoretical concepts but turned out, centuries later, to describe reality, respectively relating to planetary orbits, sound waves and seed spirals in a sunflower – leading her to speculate what if math turned out to explain how everything worked – not just physics but everything – something I can imagine discussing myself at University (other than adding back the s to change the American to the British abbreviation for the queen of sciences and purest form of art).

Discussions of pre-destination against free-will –something I remember discussing in detail with my friends at University, albeit with more of a religious aspect than the scientific/philosophical discussion here. For example the way she feels “staring at the green cursor on the black screen, trying to compose an email to Ivan – I had nothing but free will. The thought that it might be limited in some way made me feel only relief”. After playing squash the blue rubber ball was so small, so fast, so crazy. To think that the world was too deterministic for some people

A discussion about the inherent inconsistencies in the imaginary world created by Bram Stoker for Dracula, and her surprise in finding he studied pure mathematics and how weird it was that a mathematician had created such an internally inconsistent world

A discussion about the contradiction between how US teachers claimed they wanted pupils to learn (and indeed how they tried to teach them) and how they subsequently examined them – I don’t want you memorize and regurgitate, I want you to understand the elegant logic of each mechanism”. Nonetheless on the test you had to draw the diagram of RNA transcription – which reminded me of the Professional Exams I took post University.

Which in turn leads on to the assertion that in many subjects Reason only got you so far. Even if each step followed from the previous one, you still had to memorize the first step, and also the rule for how stops followed from each other – which reminded me of the surprising amount of revision and learning involved in studying Pure Mathematics at University.

So overall I have to say that I enjoyed this book hugely. It reminded me of a female (both in author and first person narrator) version of The Nix – and this resemblance was magnified both due to the number of times I laughed out loud when reading it, and the copious number of post it notes I placed in the book for passages or quotes I wanted to use in my review.

However I went into it with very low expectations as many of those I most respected on Goodreads really hated it (even some who loves The Nix) – and I can understand why this book may not appeal to others which leads to my last quote which may also serve as an apology if you have not enjoyed my review:

It was decreasingly possible to imagine explaining it to anyone. Whoever it was would jump out of a window from boredom. And yet there I was watching the accumulation in real time, and not only was I not bored, but it was all I could think about
Profile Image for ♛ may.
806 reviews3,832 followers
July 11, 2019
i,,,,,,,,,do not know what i just read

this book is really weird bc i know its meant to be written in a 'stream-of-conscious' type of narrative that is supposed to be limitless and all over the place and yet i hate it.

i know it's supposed to be all existentialist and deeply moving and profound bc it makes no sense and apparently that's supposed to be a reflection & commentary on the ~meaning of life and such (this is what all the ~fancy professional literature people~ tried to make me believe)

,,,,,which i totally DON'T agree with. maybe selin's life would be more interesting and momentous if she, say,,,,,,,,,,,took up a hobby or something idk my dude but obsessing over a guy ain't it

is this book her journal, is this her brain, what is happening, why am i getting every little thought she thinks and hearing every little bit of life she experiences, i really dont want this

and sis, if you're whole life is going to revolve around a boi, can he at least have more personality than a limp piece of unseasoned asparagus???
i just, am really concerned

let me show you a bit of the conversation that took place in this book:

"This is Selin, who I told you about," he told her.
"What?" she said.
"Selin," he repeated, "this is Selin."
"Nice to meet you," I said, extending my hand.
"Oh!" she said.
I briefly held a small, cold, unenthusiastic object.
"I talked to Vogel," the girl told Ivan, retrieving her hand.
"Oh, really?" said Ivan.
"They're giving me money, for the Chinese thing."
"For the Chinese thing, they're giving me twenty-five hundred dollars. But I'm not sure if I should do it."
"It's so boring"
"Yeah, you shouldn't be like that."
"You shouldn't do those things that bore you."
"But I need the money."
They talked for a while about the twenty-five hundred dollars and the mysterious, boring Chinese thing that she didn't want to do.
"Can't you just take the money?" Ivan was saying.
"Can't you take the money and not do it?"
"Of course not."
He shrugged. "Well, it's better than shoveling snow."
"I know," she said."


honestly i feel like i've wasted 13 hours listening to this audiobook. 13 Whole Hours i will never get back (okay, not entirely true bc i listen on 2x speed but understand the dramatics plz)

all the characters felt like they had no personality and didn't exist on any plane of earth besides selin's head and im just so, so tired

gosh, im glad this is over
Profile Image for Helene Jeppesen.
688 reviews3,626 followers
June 2, 2018
Wow! I admit I was a bit sceptical going into this book because it’s a novel that seems to split the waters. But I LOVED it!
“The Idiot” is a coming-of-age story (a genre that I love) that speaks to my linguistic heart. We follow Selin who starts at Harvard college as a student of language, and we get to be inside her head when she observes the world, the people around her, the language they use, and the culture they come from. It feels like we are living inside a bubble with her that doesn’t really allows for Selin to fully connect with the outside world, and oftentimes she comes across as quite ‘the idiot’.
I am a language teacher and love all nuances of language as well as cultures. When Selin made references to static verbs, wondered about idioms and their meaning, tried to find connections between Turkish and Hungarian (and English), I was engrossed and completely fascinated. The author, Elif Batuman, also makes sure to connect these observations cleverly so that they reappear randomly in the novel, but in relation to a story that makes sense.
The romance part of this book was very fascinating and unlike anything I’ve ever read before - this actually goes for all of the novel. The very last page (and paragraph) was surprising, and I’m still considering what to make of that; but all in all this was such an original and refreshing story that I can’t help but absolutely love it.
Profile Image for luce (that loser crying on the n° 2 bus).
1,437 reviews4,049 followers
May 23, 2023
blogthestorygraphletterboxd tumblrko-fi

Equal parts cerebral and droll, The Idiot relates the humdrum tribulations of a Turkish-American Harvard freshman. Set in the mid-nineties The Idiot provides an incredibly immersive reading experience that will not appeal to those looking for a more story-driven read. Selin’s narrative lacks momentum, her daily interactions, however peculiar, often serve no real plot function, adding little to her story. Yet, the author’s commitment to commit even the most prosaic of Selin’s thoughts or encounters adds a dimension of realism to her novel. The Idiot is very much characterised by seemingly endless digressions. Selin’s inner monologue often verges on being a stream-of-consciousness, as her mind flutters from thought to thought, often losing herself in asides or navel-gazing. While Selin is certainly naive, she does possess a certain awareness of her own limitations and shortcomings. The first half of the novel recounts her first year at university. Like many other disoriented heroines, aside from her vague aspirations of becoming a writer, Selin is unsure of what she wants to study, let alone who she is or wants to be. At Harvard, she takes classes on literature but seems dissatisfied by the way her professor teaches this subject (her criticism towards academia certainly resonated with me here) and seems to find her Russian class far more interesting. This is partly due to Ivan. He’s Hungarian, a few years older than her, and a mathematics student. Rather by chance, the two begin an email correspondence, one that is full of existential angst or studenty speculations about the meaning of x or y. Their virtual rapport doesn’t translate well in real life and when in the proximity of one another they often are unable to clearly express their ideas or feelings. Selin’s narrative is very much concerned with (mis)communication. Her mind grows increasingly preoccupied with language from its limitations to its potential.
In the latter half of the novel Selin, persuaded by Ivan, spends her summer teaching ESL classes in Hungary. Here she has to confront the possibility that she may have been idealising her and Ivan’s will-they-won’t-they relationship.
The dialogues within this novel ring incredibly true to life. They have this mumblecoreesque quality—awkward pauses, recursiveness, mishearing—that made those scenes come to life. The characters populating the narrative—Ivan, Svetlana, Selin’s roommates and the other ESL teachers—also came across as realistic. While some of their idiosyncrasies are certainly played up for laughs, that the author was able to capture in such minute detail the particular way in which they express themselves made them all the more vivid. At times Selin’s interactions with others do stray into absurdist territories but I found that more often than not I could definitely relate to her more eccentric conversations.
Selin’s narrative is certainly adroit. Interspersed throughout her narration are many literary references as well as detailed descriptions or accounts of whatever other subject she is discussing or thinking about. I found the conversations around West/East to be particularly entertaining. In spite of her supposed ‘idiocy’ Selin makes for a sharp-eyed narrator. Her insights into human behaviour and the academic world, as well as her exploration of the possibilities and failures of language, struck me as being both shrewd and funny.
While we do read of Selin’s innermost feelings Elif Batuman keeps us at a remove from her. In this way, she emphasises the alienation, loneliness, unease, Selin herself experiences throughout the novel. While the title does seem to be a nod at Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel, Selin has little in common with Prince Myshkin. If anything, Batuman seems to have a Flaubertian preoccupation with failure. In a manner not too dissimilar from Emma Bovary, Selin’s longing to be with Ivan seemed to be less a result of love than her desire to experience that which she has read in so many books.
Under different hands The Idiot could have been a dull affair. It is Batuman’s deadpan humor and naturalistic storytelling that make The Idiot into a worthwhile read. The novel’s latter half was slightly less enjoyable than the first but I was still for the most part absorbed by Selin’s voice. Her passivity may rub people the wrong way but I found the myriad of uncertainties plaguing her to make all the more believable. If you liked Susan Choi's My Education you might want to give this a shot.

re-read: this book is such a riot ! batuman really captures the minutiae of selin's inner monologue, from fleeting, and often random, thoughts, to the kind of recurring ideas, fears, and desires that occupy you day in, day out. the dry & droll humor combined with the mumblecore dialogues and surreally detailed interactions & scenarios lend the narrative a hysterical realist vibe that is very much guaranteed to win over or alienate readers. thankfully for me, i love batuman's style and selin's narration.
Profile Image for Jenny (Reading Envy).
3,876 reviews3,114 followers
April 7, 2017
Part of my warm feelings to this book must be because the author is reflecting so much of my own experience, that era (95-96) of life-changing technology and the normalization of the internet right at the gateway to college, with suddenly changing relationships and interactions, especially how email changed flirtations!
"I began to feel that I was living two lives - one consisting of emails with Ivan, the other consisting of school."
Selin is the main character, a Turkish American studying linguistics at Harvard. She is very smart, but very inexperienced in relationships. I loved how everything she learned in the classroom because filtered through the experiences she was having. Much of the writing makes me think back to the days when everyone was on LiveJournal, writing long entries about trivial events of their days. But in those days, we found a lot of meaning in sharing so much of our lives. I felt like the first half of the novel in particular captured this feeling, this mode-of-communicating, that we have moved on from as we have turned to short blasts of clever phrases or photos. There is less room for connection between people and ideas, in my opinion. So parts of this were absolutely indulgent for me. I am making this caveat clear because I am not sure, without this shared experience, that this novel would be as good for another reader.

I was less thrilled with where the novel went, as soon as Ivan arranged for Selin to teach English in Hungary. Then it became a novel about things happening, and much of the deeper thinking and navel-gazing went away. I liked the ending, but it could have been longer.

I listened to the audio, read by the author, and I loved her wry tone. I may have caught the humor in the print but it was particularly clear in her voice. I found myself laughing at some of her side comments and descriptions. If she also read her previous book, I would probably go read it.

Thanks to the publisher for a copy of the audio in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Rachel.
550 reviews925 followers
July 13, 2018
The Idiot is a book you either click with or you don't. I absolutely understand why some readers have found it maddening. I can't recall the last book I read where less happened than it did here, which, considering that it's nearly a five-hundred page book, is kind of a triumph in its own right. But I got along with The Idiot splendidly.

This is quiet, sparse, cerebral, philosophical, surprisingly humorous account of a Turkish-American girl's first year at Harvard. In one of her Russian classes she meets Ivan, an older Hungarian student, and she becomes inexorably drawn to him. This isn't a romantic book, necessarily, but it is one that ruminates on the nature of love. Selin's pursuit of love and pursuit of intellectualism run parallel, both stemming from a desire to understand and be understood, and this is something that Batuman explores deftly in these pages.

The most noteworthy thing about this book is the brilliant protagonist that Batuman has created in Selin, and her striking narrative voice. Selin is first and foremost an observer. That's not to say that she isn't an active participant in her life, or that she doesn't make decisions, because she does, but often these decisions come more as reactions to the people and situations around her rather than from within herself. Selin observes the world in order to gain a deeper understanding of herself and where exactly she fits into the cosmic puzzle - and that's something I really connected with. I lost track of how many lines I highlighted because yes, that is me, that is my entire college experience encapsulated in a single phrase - but this one in particular stood out to me:

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.

I will admit to flinching at this and some of the other truths that The Idiot elucidated for me.

My only complaint is that it overstays its welcome by about a hundred pages... but I'm actually struggling to make up my mind about whether I think that's an objective fault, or if this feeling is due to the fact that I traveled halfway across the country halfway through reading this book and had to take a break for several days due to work things and eventually came back to it in a different (and more tired) frame of mind.

Anyway, I can't think of many people I'd recommend this to, and I can think of several I would specifically not recommend this to (hi, Hadeer), but I thought it was brilliant. It's an easy, smooth read in some ways, but a difficult, dense read in others - Batuman doesn't rely on a flashy vocabulary to show off her intelligence, but it's on display on every single page. This isn't a book you read for escapism as much as one you read in order to gain a clearer picture of your own reality. For me, it was a resounding success in that regard.
Profile Image for Hannah Knight.
35 reviews5 followers
May 22, 2017
I have a lot of complicated feelings about this book, to the point where I think if someone were to ask me, "but did you like it?" I would only be able to manage a sort of groan/shrug combo. Which might be an alright response if you're Selin. But since I'm not, I'm not super satisfied with that, and I took a lot of notes as I read that I would really hate to go to waste.

So let's try to articulate this and see if we can't come up with a better response to that question than a shrug.

I think The Idiot does what it does very well. What I mean by that is that this is an incredibly pretentious, disjointed novel written from the perspective of an incredibly pretentious and aimless Harvard undergrad. That's how it reads because that's who's telling the story. I wanted to use the word "solipsistic" to describe Selin, but I'm not sure that it really fits who she is most of the time. Selin spends the novel making observations about other people and the world around her, which she has a really difficult time understanding. So, I think that ultimately, not only does Selin not understand the world (which, fair enough), but she also really lacks self-awareness.

And the thing is, I don't really think Selin becomes more self-aware as the novel progresses. Others have noted that devastating final paragraph, which really sums up the whole novel: So, Selin doesn't grow as a character, which is the main reason why I would hesitate to call this a coming of age story as others have done. At it's core, I think that it's simply a book about miscommunication and the gaps in understanding between people. "What was it to know each other?" Selin asks fairly early in the book. She never really figures that out.

What troubled me the most in this novel was Selin's conception of womanhood and femininity -- in her mind, the feminine is nearly always aligned with weak, and all of her decision making orbits around Ivan, who consistently made me want to hurl. There's a great section nearly 300 pages into the book where Ivan and Selin are having one of their famous non-conversations about Crime and Punishment: "'What were we talking about?' asked Ivan. 'How it's okay to sacrifice old women if it enables your intellectual development,' I said." I would argue that Ivan feels this way about all women, and Selin never really grapples with this attitude in any meaningful way.

But again, that's not really a mark against the book for me, because Selin isn't really supposed to grow like that within the context of this narrative. As a reader, I wished she would and I hoped she would, and at one point I really thought she was going to learn something important. Alas! Selin seems perfectly content in her frustration and cycle of misunderstanding. She talks a lot about going out and having experiences for the sake of her writing, and now I'm wondering if Selin's insistence on making things more difficult for herself than they need to be stems from some kind of #torturedartist complex. Exhibit A: "...I shrouded my studies in secrecy and pretended not to understand anything..." SELIN. GIRL. WHY?!

Anyway, my favorite parts of this novel were Svetlana and the story from Selin's Russian class about Nina and the other Ivan, which was completely absurd and wonderful.

Here we are at the end. Did I like it?

No. No, I don't think I did.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Sofia.
231 reviews6,965 followers
July 31, 2023
I understand the love for The Idiot. It’s witty and blunt, filled with realistically awkward dialogue and well-written feelings of inadequacy, aimlessness, and confusion. I think most of the book’s charm comes from its potential to be relatable and its spot-on depiction of everyday events and feelings that I’d never thought about putting into words. Unfortunately, I thought The Idiot read like a somewhat clunky sequence of events that never fully captured my interest or my emotions. Every character had pretty much the same personality, which may have been a satirical choice but made the book difficult for me to engage with for longer than twenty minutes either way. The connection and chemistry between characters—particularly between Selin and Ivan—was stated but never shown in an effective way.

Although the monotony of Selin’s college life is part of what makes this book what it is, The Idiot frequently meanders too far in that direction for my liking. As in real life, things happen with little symbolic or meaningful reason. In a 400-page book, this is quickly exhausting. It had many pages of opportunity to give me something to get attached to, but Selin’s stream-of-consciousness narration felt strangely distant. Perhaps you will find the story more interesting emotionally if you connect with Selin from the beginning. She has a lot of witty insights that I think someone who relates to her more will find especially enjoyable.

I loved brief sections of the novel. Although these were few and far between, they always involved a situation or a feeling that I found relatable. Possibly my favorite aspect of The Idiot is how Selin thinks that everyone is more developed and knowledgeable and prepared for life than she is, and how she feels acutely the futility of using language in order to be understood when words are so often inadequate and are still the first translation of what’s actually on her mind.

My low rating might be due to the compounding of various unfavorable conditions that negatively impacted my enjoyment of this book, such as the fact that I read most of it between exams, and immersing myself in the stressful academic experiences of this book only to set it aside to experience my own stressful academic experience was not that fun.

This book might be a new favorite for you, or it might be the wrong fit; either way, I think you’ll know in the first 100 pages.

Profile Image for Michael Ferro.
Author 2 books214 followers
February 2, 2018
This novel is a slow burn, but it's a pleasant warmth—not a scorching fire of excitement. But it's not meant to be either. Batuman has delivered a delightful, excruciatingly smart work of literary fiction that so perfectly captures the confusion of young love. For anyone who has ever felt "different," or a bit separated from a common reality, THE IDIOT is in your wheelhouse.

Batuman is a writer's writer, giving us what our brain craves and doesn't waste our time with the cheap thrills that others demand in order to turn the page. Instead, her sentences are stark and beautiful. The narrator's thoughts are unfiltered, raw, and often downright hilarious. It's a long story, and though you may not always be sure where it's going, you eventually come to a worthwhile conclusion. It's hard to ask for more from a very promising young talent.
Profile Image for Jola.
184 reviews277 followers
August 12, 2022
Any ideas how to prevent a book from ending? All helpful tips and magic spells are welcome. Alas, it is too late to use them on The Idiot, but they will be kept for future reference.

Lightness is the word which perfectly encapsulates my impressions after having read this book. Was it a novel at all? Or maybe a sparkling potion of many ingredients: linguistics, coming of age, literary classics, national identity, philosophy of language, philosophy in general, immigration, to name just a few? And it is so charming and unpretentious at the same time. Please, ignore its blurb — it makes The Idiot sound like a not especially riveting YA novel and there is much more to it.

It is such a special and rare feeling when you discover that the author's sense of humour is 100% compatible with yours and The Idiot is just the case. The playfulness of this book is difficult to describe: subtle irony comes to mind. By the way, Elif Batuman may have changed my neighbours' opinion on me — a few times I could have been spotted giggling uncontrollably while dog walking. It happens every time I recall some hilarious comments by Selin or Svetlana.

The Idiot is one of the most uplifting novels I have ever read. Uplifting in a gentle and warm way, not hyper-energetic and trying-to-be-funny-by-all means way. I could almost hear the jaunty swish of endorphins being produced by my brain while reading The Idiot.

I got enamoured with this novel, all its imperfections included. I did not like the Paris part very much because of some cliches. I am not a massive fan of its title either — the references to Dostoevsky were visible in the novel anyway — and I think there might be a little confusion because of the famous namesake.

I was truly miserable when I reached the last page of Elif Batuman's novel. It was such a relief when I found out that a continuation was published a few months ago. I feel sorry for the readers who had to wait patiently for five years!

Image by fran_kie.
Profile Image for myo ⋆。˚ ❀ *.
819 reviews6,859 followers
July 15, 2022
423 pages of Ivan leading Selin on. I related to the book but like it was boring, LITERALLY nothing happens! like this book deadass could’ve just been 200 pages. the first half of the book was good when she was in school and at least when she was going to her classes it had a bit of substance but then like… when she goes to hungry it’s just nothing for 200 pages.

if i wanted to witness someone overthink and obsess over a boy i would just look in the fucking mirror.
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