Book Review: The Idiot by Elif Batuman

The Idiot

The Idiot by Elif Batuman /  ★★★★★

Summary: 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.

“And you are different? You do not love truth?” 

I thought about it. “Truth is okay,” I said. 

For months, this book had been in the back of my brain, nagging at me to read it. I only had a vague sense about what it was about – a young Turkish-American girl and her first year as a Harvard student in the 1990s – but FINALLY I picked it up off of my dusty shelf, and wow. I loved it.

The Idiot is a meandering, surprisingly absurd tale, in which our main character Selin falls all-consumingly in love with a Harvard classmate, Ivan, who she first begins conversing with over email. I did not expect this book to be as funny as it was- there were times where I caught myself actually laughing out loud. But this book is not a romance. Because on the other hand, there is a pensiveness and uncertainty that pervades it, brought on by Selin’s puzzlement in her “place” in all of this- in the world, with other people, with herself.

She is a writer, but she doesn’t like to think about being a writer, or for other people to acknowledge that she is a writer. And it’s not just because I too enjoy writing that I found her to be extremely relatable -in fact, it’s amazing how much is said about writing, without Selin actually acknowledging writing very often. It’s that her confusion about her place in the world is done quietly, internally and furiously at times. She embodied my experience as an introverted and reserved person, who observes the world around her and how people go about their lives, and lets herself get roped along, regardless of the absurdity of it, or how much she’s actually invested. Selin tries many things in this book, goes through many of experiences in order to find answers to her uncertainty. Despite this, I never felt like Selin didn’t know what she was doing. She’s very aware, she knew what was good for her and what was not, but she chose to do certain things – good and bad – regardless, and never on some crazy impulse, but often because she was hoping for the best. Selin’s character struck me as someone who doesn’t always want to follow her head, and is sometimes disappointed in other people’s hearts, and I think that’s where her character struck a chord with me the most.

I would venture to guess that this is not the type of book that would please everyone, but I loved the humor of it, and I don’t mind a meandering story, especially if I like the characters.  I do think that it did get a bit too slow in the middle, and while I still enjoyed it, I found myself waiting a bit for the next turn in events. Regardless, I found this to be a very enjoyable read (even if the love interest, Ivan, was actually infuriating). It’s a book that, while quiet, has a lot to say, and one I feel like I could talk about for a long time. I think The Idiot could very well end up on my list of favorite books I’ve read this year. 

TL;DR review in 5 thoughts: LOL. Meandering plot. Extremely relatable main character. Can this guy LEAVE. A++ ending lines.

6 thoughts on “Book Review: The Idiot by Elif Batuman

  1. STILL VERY HAPPY YOU LOVED THIS!!! I will never love a character as much as Selin or hate a character as much as Ivan. Your paragraph about Selin’s role as an observer is so on point, that’s highkey what I most identified with. But what I also loved is that I feel like this Type of character doesn’t always have a strong personality or sense of self, like the ‘young person trying to find themselves in academia’ subgenre is so oversaturated with utterly interchangable protagonists but Selin was so vivid even though she allowed herself to fade into the background of her own life, like damn, Elif Batuman did that!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • YES!! I loved when someone would give her an opinion that she hadn’t considered, or one that kind of troubled her, and she would have like, an extreme moment of self doubt?? She could be like “Red is good” and Svetlana would be like “but blue is better and more people think so” and Selin would go into a moment of questioning all her own morals and opinions??? Because same, but especially when I was younger. Like, Selin isn’t even 20 in this book and it’s especially on point for an 18/19 year old…..that’s something that YA doesn’t even capture often.

      Liked by 1 person

      • YES like when you’re young and go off to college you’re constantly being shaped by the environment and personalities around you and Elif Batuman captured that SO WELL.

        Also, I just find it hilarious that to the people who are super strict about the ‘YA means the protagonist is a teenager’ rule this book is technically YA…… lololol

        Liked by 1 person

      • PLEASE………..and there are YAs that are far more illicit than this book was. This book was hardly licit at all, really. Just set during college so I guess that makes it non-YA?????

        Liked by 1 person

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