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Selin is a freshman student of languages at Harvard. She aspires to be a writer and for her “language itself is a self sufficient system.” At Harvard, she befriends Svetlana, who is an extremely smart and opinionated girl and becomes Selin’s confidante over the first year of her college life. Selin takes up a Russian language class and ends up meeting Ivan there. She develops a crush on him, which she thinks is serious love. They begin an innocent email correspondance, talking about nothing in particular. She follows him to Hungary over summers, where she teaches English to children in a village. Selin and Ivan are the quintessential “will they, won’t they” couple and their relationship, or rather the lack of it; forms the central arc of the story.
I liked Selin’s character. She is an extremely intelligent girl with a very “no non-sense” attitude. Her infatuation with Ivan is also understandable, because it is very usual for an eighteen year old to have such feelings. And equally impressive is Svetlana, who is her own twisted way is often the voice of reason for Selin. I understand that this book was supposed be kind of a “coming of age story”. The first half was dedicated to describing Selin’s first year at Harvard, which personally for me triggered a lot of nostalgia about Boston and Cambridge. However, I felt the story sort of fell off rails in the second half which was dedicated to describing Selin’s summer in Hungary, interspersed with her meetings with Ivan. It stretched so long that by the end I had lost interest in knowing if they would be together or not.
I guess this is one of those books which would generate a very polarised opinions, readers would absolutely love it or not like it at all. I feel this is one one the weaker books in the short list of women’s prize.
Another finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction 2018 (also Women’s Prize for fiction etc. etc.) – awesome book "The Idiot" (yes, like Dostoevsky). English insult does not imply a gender, but, judging from the cover of the German edition ("Die Idiotin"), Elif Batuman, the author, lovingly calls that the main heroine, young Selin (pronounced not like Celine Dion, but Sélin), during her first year in Harvard – her coming of age.
Where do I begin to explain, how can I show what the book is about and why was I so delighted by the story? It is a vigorous mix of naivety, first love, broken hearts and language as a phenomenon. The book is about friendship and support, about finding one's place in life, about one’s own history, about taekwondo and "the great and mighty Russian language". And it is a novel in a novel, different stories interlinked to make the most amusing narrative. Batuman is a stone-faced humorist.
The novel is divided into two parts: Selin’s academic year in Harvard and her adventures in Hungary, where she goes during summer holidays to teach English as a foreign language. I preferred her academic life (and so did most readers as I found out from the internet research). But guys, "The Idiot" is beautiful. And as the "historical novel" about that distant time, when emails were new and nobody heard of mobile phones, it brings on the wave of sweet nostalgia.
The American edition has a beautiful pink cover with a rough granite stone of science to grind away at. Not so excited about the British cover.
Top marks from me. Five stars. A must read! Not without some criticism, but for the gift of unbridled laughter (read: hysteria) that I experienced while reading it – I cannot not recommend it! A pleasure!
Expectations raised by Batuman's luminous first book and sharp journalism are not fulfilled. The witty moments are separated by dull quarters of an hour: events from other writing here revisited, opinions labored and familiar, art and lit crit glib. A second edition, a third of the text cut and the rest reordered to give direction to the story, would probably be a joy.
I wanted to give this book five stars. The female heroine, the references to being a university student in the 1990s, the interest in language, the unrequited crush… they all resonated strongly with me. The first part of the book is really good, but I felt the second part could have been shorter. The heroine’s micro-experiences in the Hungarian village seemed to go on and on, with so much detail… I felt relief when I finally got through them and finished the book. That quibble aside, “The Idiot” is highly enjoyable reading for those with a little spare time on their hands.
I had no idea what was oing on. So many characters who added nothing to the story. Endless irrelevant descriptions of events which didn't add anything to the plot. Ploughed through to 15%, skimmed a bit but read more of the same then gave up. This was a choice from my book club so it will be interesting to hear what the others thought of it. Don't waste your money buying.
This novel details the freshman year of a Harvard students in a fashion that felt quite naive and unpretentious Her details account of a crush on an older graduating student called up memories of how painful such love can be.
The delicacy of the story grew in appeal as I read.It captured so much of youth in a time not all that long ago in years but feels longee in terms of the world.
I was a few years late to the party - studied later at a university in Turkey but the stories sound familiar and fun. As someone living abroad now, it stroke a chord. Happy to have met Ms Batuman in writing.