Elif Batuman's The Idiot book cover is "millennial pink" (for those of you unfamiliar, this is a ~*trendy~* shade of pink). Therefore, the reader is visually cued that this is a book about a young girl. But Batuman decides to set her rather millennial novel in the mid-90s. Before the internet, before cell phones, and certainly, before the advent of millennial pink.
The protagonist at the heart of The Idiot is Selim, a Harvard first-year, who develops an unrequited crush on a senior from Hungary named Ivan in her Russian class. The narrative meanders about, following Selim through her first year at Harvard (part one) and her summer spent in Hungary teaching English (part two). Part two was my favorite part, but Selim felt very passive throughout. It felt like she was observing her own life, and I wanted to shake her and be like "DO SOMETHING!!!" I guess that is the sign of a good book; it makes you feel something. But I just felt annoyed with her. However, the simple language Batuman uses for Selim's observations were fantastic. For example, when Selim is leaving a party in Hungary:
"Hello," everyone started saying to each other. "Hello, hello." "Hello" meant both hello and goodbye. I never got tired of seeing Hungarians say hello to each other in serious voices, and then turn in opposite directions and walk away.
The novel was heavily focused on language; Selim is fascinated with how people communicate and falls in love with Ivan over e-mail. E-mail, remember, was relatively new in 1995. I cannot tell what my take-away is on this novel, which I know makes me a poor book reviewer. I kept reading, I even had a dream about it, but I left feeling greatly unsatisfied. I wanted more. Maybe more action, maybe for the character herself to do something, maybe I saw too much of myself reflected in Selim. Whatever the answer, I do think you should check out The Idiot for yourself. Funnily, it steals the title from Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Batuman is a big fan of Russian novels. As NPR points out,
Elif Batuman is on record as disliking "crisp" fiction, fiction that streamlines, that asks to be compared to apples, or whips. "Write long novels, pointless novels," she urges in an essay for n+1. And she has. The Idiot is a long wander, a vague rummage, "as simultaneously absorbing and off-putting as someone else's incredibly long dream," as her narrator, Selin, says of Bleak House.
So, know what you're getting yourself into: a long and winding book about language and love. But really, about a young Turkish-American girl wondering if a senior likes her back. Rating: ★★★★