Review: ‘The Idiot’ by Elif Batuman

Welcome back for another review, this time a review of ‘The Idiot’ by Elif Batuman. I found this story strange, interesting, and gripping- and I really enjoyed reading it.

‘The Idiot’ is about Selin, a young woman starting her first year at Harvard University. She finds herself drawn into new friendships, passionate conversations and complex relations while she struggles to come to terms with who she is, what she wants, and where she wants to go in life.

Choosing complex modules about linguistics and philosophy, as well as a beginners’ class in Russian, Selin’s life revolves around the interesting and often bizarre connections she makes in these classes.

Selin encounters many experiences during her first year at college, finding herself exposed to subjects and life experiences which excite and overwhelm her.

About halfway through the book, she travels to Europe, teaching English to children in a Hungarian village, and she brilliantly recounts the world and bright characters that she meets along the way.

I loved the narration of this book, and Selin’s down-to-earth narration made this book much more interesting. The way she portrays the different characters is very interesting. Svetlana is dramatic and relies on Selin for emotional support, and Ralph is witty and hiding his sexuality.

Selin confronts complex linguistic and philosophical debates, and I loved the way that these debates seeped into her real life- making her first year at college a fascinating but confusing and over-whelming experience.

I found the friendship between Ivan and Selin fascinating to read about. Their friendship consisted of long, philosophical emails, talking about language, Russian, and concepts such as love and hate in a unique way.

The way in which they connected on such a deep, intellectual level over this email correspondence was also really interesting. When they eventually meet in person the complexity of their conversations, and the unique nature of their relationship, really jumped off the page.

Selin’s narration was witty and blunt, and I found myself really engaging with her character, and rooting for her. I really enjoyed seeing the world from her point of view.

Selin’s attitude towards Ivan was so honest and brutal. She fell so hard for this mysterious person she knew very little about, and it was his intelligence and unique attitude to life which attracted and enthralled her. She has never met anyone like Ivan, and this expression of a first love is so raw and brutal that it was hard not to feel for Selin.

Selin feels such a deep, intellectual connection to Ivan, a man who is forever giving her mixed signals. This friendship was not like anything I’d read about before, and it will stay with me.

I loved the bit in the book where Selin travelled to Europe, first with Svetlana, to Paris, and then on to Hungary, to visit Ivan and teach English in a Hungarian village. Selin’s descriptions of these many travels were bright and colourful, and I loved immersing myself in Selin’s world.

The way she describes Eastern Europe is comical and witty, and the many people she meets there are both charming and hilarious. I love how Selin doesn’t let anything get her down, and she has a cynical and sarcastic outlook on life, which I very much appreciated. I learnt so much about linguistics, Russian, and other European languages- Elif Batuman is clearly an intelligent and cultured writer!

While this book was very unique, I could still relate to Selin’s experiences as a first-time student. Going to University, you meet a whole range of people who you previously wouldn’t have had contact with, and you certainly encounter many a deep, philosophical, late-night debate.

When Selin stays up until 5 in the morning discussing the intricacies of language, it kind of reminded me of my first year of University, when me and my friends would debate random topics.

Another of these friends informed me that ‘The Idiot’ is actually the name of a book by Dostoevsky- it seems Batuman named both her fiction books after books by this famous Russian author. Clever stuff. I’m sure many other bits of this book also went over my head.

Overall, I really enjoyed reading this book. It was just the kind of easy-to-read novel I needed after my first term of second year- as well as being intellectually stimulating, unique and fascinating. This book has certainly got me interested in the subject of etymology, and I’m going to check out more books about this topic.

Selin really made this book, and I related to the exciting, but overwhelming, experiences she faced when starting at University.

What do you think of my review of ‘The Idiot’ by Elif Batuman? Would you like to give ‘The Idiot’ a go? What do you think of Ivan and Selin’s relationship?

Let me know all your thoughts in the comments below 🙂

Happy reading x

Picture credits here

11 thoughts

  1. I’ve never read anything even along these story lines really but you can tell by reading your post that it really resonated with you, it’s great when you read a book and can fall in love with it because you can relate yourself and have that empathy for characters. Great review x

    Liked by 1 person

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