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423 pages, Hardcover
First published March 14, 2017
“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.”
“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.”
[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
[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”
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.
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
“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.
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
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
"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.
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.