Monday, July 23, 2018

Review: The Idiot

The Idiot by Elif Batuman 

Selin, a tall, highly strung Turkish-American from New Jersey turns up at Harvard and finds herself dangerously overwhelmed by the challenges and possibilities of adulthood. She studies linguistics and literature, and spends a lot of time thinking about what language – and languages – can and cannot do. Along the way she befriends Svetlana, a cosmopolitan Serb, and obsesses over Ivan, a mathematician from Hungary.

Selin ponders profound questions about how culture and language shape who we are, how difficult it is to be a failed writer, and how baffling love is. At once clever and clueless, Batuman’s heroine shows us with perfect hilarity and soulful inquisitiveness just how messy it can be to forge a self.

I picked up The Idiot while in Britain on a summer trip. I had never heard of it before but something inexplicably drew me to it. I then read the synopsis and the blurbs and was sold; it was about a Harvard student and I was going to go see the campus while on a trip to Boston. The book came at the perfect time. Vanity Fair called it "masterfully funny" on the front cover so I thought I was in for a lighter read.

And it was hilarious; there's no doubt about it. There were so many parts that made me laugh out loud. SO many. Batuman, with her dry humor, has quite a talent for unexpectedly witty sentences. And there were so many thoughts of Selin's that resonated with me - so many quotes that I plan to write down and keep somewhere.

However, I really wouldn't classify this as light reading. There's reference after reference to famous literature, art, people etc. Selin is a student at Harvard, and while she is clueless about some things, she is also extraordinarily smart in academic areas. My brain definitely grew a bit after reading this (kind of like how the Grinch's heart grew in the 1966 movie... that's what it felt like) .

Also, while this book was funny, there were parts that were (kind of) depressing. And it wasn't like unbearably dreary stuff; Batuman simply portrayed life as it is - with all its ugliness and sharp edges. And what's amazing is that she doesn't even dwell on many horrible tidbits.

For example, Selin's friend Svetlana (who I found so interesting that I could easily write a ten page paper on her) divulges that she had an eating disorder and, upon finding out, her mother's only response was to tell her there were pills for making her skinny. And then her family continued to harangue her about her weight. Isn't that horrible? And all this information only took up like a small paragraph or two. It's grittily realistic. This is one of many examples of these breathtaking bombs Batuman surprises us with.

Another one of the more realistic (but not fun) parts of the book is seeing Selin struggle. She doesn't sleep, she lives in books, she's judgey etc. (she's going to get a B in Russian maybe... oh no) One of my favorite scenes is when she sees a therapist (I think... or some sort of counselor-type) and he diagnoses her flaws. Although she is still such a lovable character.

Then there's Ivan. Ohhhhhhh, he was one of Selin's worst decisions (and she made quite a few). I knew he was incredibly bad news from the get-go. And Selin discovers what it's like to get her heart broken and it sucks. But their relationship was weirdly intellectual; and their bond was so fascinating.

There's two parts of The Idiot in my mind: Harvard and Hungary. And both of these parts were just jam packed of things. I know "things" is a bad word (too vague) but that's what it felt like: so many people and classes and stories and anecdotes and thoughts. It was so stimulating. The section is Hungary was particularly a roller coaster of new people (which Selin herself comments on).

At the end Selin has less answers than she wanted, but I think she has more answers than she think she has. And, yes, she's still young and frustrated and confused... but please show me a college student who isn't. I'm sorry if I rambled during this review; but I could have rambled on for pages. So I guess you also should be thankful for my attempt at brevity at this late hour?

5/5 Stars

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