book review: The Idiot by Elif Batuman

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THE IDIOT by Elif Batuman
★★★★★
Penguin Press, 2017

The Idiot is a book you either click with or you don’t. I absolutely understand why some readers have found it maddening. I can’t recall the last book I read where less happened than it did here, which, considering that it’s nearly a five-hundred page book, is kind of a triumph in its own right. But I got along with The Idiot splendidly.

This is a quiet, sparse, cerebral, philosophical, surprisingly humorous account of a Turkish-American girl’s first year at Harvard. In one of her Russian classes she meets Ivan, an older Hungarian student, and she becomes inexorably drawn to him. This isn’t a romantic book, necessarily, but it is one that ruminates on the nature of love. Selin’s pursuit of love and pursuit of intellectualism run parallel, both stemming from a desire to understand and be understood, and this is something that Batuman explores deftly in these pages.

The most noteworthy thing about this book is the brilliant protagonist that Batuman has created in Selin, and her striking narrative voice. Selin is first and foremost an observer. That’s not to say that she isn’t an active participant in her life, or that she doesn’t make decisions, because she does, but often these decisions come more as reactions to the people and situations around her rather than from within herself. Selin observes the world in order to gain a deeper understanding of herself and where exactly she fits into the cosmic puzzle – and that’s something I really connected with. I lost track of how many lines I highlighted because yes, that is me, that is my entire college experience encapsulated in a single phrase – but this one in particular stood out to me:

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.

I will admit to flinching at this and some of the other truths that The Idiot elucidated for me.

My only complaint is that it overstays its welcome by about a hundred pages… but I’m actually struggling to make up my mind about whether I think that’s an objective fault, or if this feeling is due to the fact that I traveled halfway across the country halfway through reading this book and had to take a break for several days due to work things and eventually came back to it in a different (and more tired) frame of mind.

Anyway, I can’t think of many people I’d recommend this to, and I can think of several I would specifically not recommend this to (hi, Hadeer), but I thought it was brilliant. It’s an easy, smooth read in some ways, but a difficult, dense read in others – Batuman doesn’t rely on a flashy vocabulary to show off her intelligence, but it’s on display on every single page. This isn’t a book you read for escapism as much as one you read in order to gain a clearer picture of your own reality. For me, it was a resounding success in that regard.

23 thoughts on “book review: The Idiot by Elif Batuman

  1. Interesting. This is (I think) the first positiv review of this I have seen. I can totally see what worked for you with this novel, while also realising that it would drive me up the walls. (PS: I saw a book on NetGalley that I thought would be perfect for you (The Silence of the Girls), just to realize you had already added in on Goodreads and seem to have an arc already. I was pleased by that.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s such a polarizing book, all of my Goodreads friends have either raved or ranted about it, there is no in between. You’re one of the people I would decidedly NOT recommend this to, but I definitely think you could see the merit in it… just not find it particularly enjoyable.

      I love that you know my tastes so well, I first found that book while browsing Netgalley and I got SO EXCITED. It had better be as amazing as it sounds.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Absolutely! Even though so many of my own life experiences are markedly different from Selin’s (lol, Harvard, as if), there was something about the way she experienced life and academia that resonated so strongly.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I didn’t read this book but the author has been compared to Gabriel García Márquez’s. Márquez, whom I enjoy, doesn’t really write commercial fiction, which are usually the popular best sellers. He is more of a literary fiction author. It’s the genre that drives most crazy. Read the first paragraph in my review for “Alternate Side.” I was trying to explain commercial vs. literary fiction. https://books6259.wordpress.com/2018/02/20/alternate-side-by-anna-quindlen/

    Anyway, since I often enjoy books that other reviewers didn’t care for, I might just give this one a try.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s very interesting that you’ve seen comparisons to Marquez – I wouldn’t have thought that at all! I haven’t really read any Marquez, I only made it about 20 pages into Love in the Time of Cholera and that’s it. But his writing strikes me as very lush and flowery, whereas Batuman’s is very sparse and simplistic (in a good way). Maybe their narrative structure is similar, though? Anyway, The Idiot is very, very literary, so I’m not sure I’d recommend it to someone who doesn’t like literary fiction, though I suppose it’s always worth a try!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Well I love literary fiction, so I will try the book. And, maybe I just got the comparsion wrong. LOL Happy reading and reviewing.

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  3. Your reviews always make me want to read a book you’re reviewing even if I am not interested in the slightest. I’ve heard so many mixed reviews for this so I decided to let it go and just not read it. But now I really want to. Great review!

    Liked by 2 people

    • That is the BEST kind of compliment, thank you so much! It’s one to keep in mind if you’re in the mood for something literary and thought-provoking, but DEFINITELY not if you’re looking for something quick and pacy.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I thought it was a great book! Have you read Patty Yumi Cottrell’s Sorry to Disrupt the peace? It’s quite similar – well quirkier to be honest.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. […] 5. The Idiot by Elif Batuman.  I’m not Turkish-American and I didn’t go to Harvard.  But otherwise, I have never read a book where I’ve seen myself reflected on the page more starkly than in The Idiot.  The simultaneous disillusionment and fascination with academia that characterize Selin’s first year of college were so, so real to me, as was her obsession with the function of language.  This cerebral, plotless work is not something that I would recommend to most people, but I couldn’t help but to feel a very strong connection to it.  Full review here. […]

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  6. That quote about writing……..ON POINT. Also I agree that it was a bit too long, the middle dragged a bit for me and I felt like I was just waiting for her to go to Hungary. BUT Selin is 100% most relatable character of the year, I’d die for Selin.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That quote about writing nailed me harder than anything ever has, like, how dare she???? Around 100 pages from the end I was like okay, this can end now, and then at the very end I was like I COULD READ 100 MORE PAGES. Selin is an ICON and I would die for her

      Liked by 1 person

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