Book Reviews

The Idiot – Elif Batuman


Selin is a freshman student of languages at Harvard.  She is gifted with words and wants to pursue writing as a career. She takes up multiple courses like Philosophy of Languages and Introductory Russian at Harvard, to gauge where her true interest lies. In her Russian class, she meets Svetlana and Ivan. While Svetlana becomes her closest confidante, she develops romantic feelings for Ivan which go mostly unrequited. Is is infatuation or true love? She finds herself incapable of functioning without him and pursues him to Hungary. Will she find her love there? Are they destined for togetherness or heart break?

My thoughts on the book

Strong Characters

Selin is a very strong and intelligent character. She is enrolled at Harvard, so she is obviously smart, but at the same time she is very aware. It is not very obvious, since she may come across as socially awkward. She is aware of her feelings, no matter how painful or embarrassing it might be to acknowledge them. Painful because of unrequited love; embarrassing because she lets a man take so much control of her mind and heart. But in the end she displays maturity is her acceptance of Ivan’s rejection. The conflict between her mind and hear has been brought out very well in the story.

Ivan and Svetlana are strong in their own way. They all have their priorities correct. Ivan cares for Selin in a platonic way; and there might be sometimes when he os confused about his feelings for her. However, he knows that at this point in his life this is not what he wants and therefore he does not let anything relationship blossom between them. Svetlana, as obnoxious as she may sound, is often the voice of reason for Selin. She also is very aware of her own issues and tries to deal with them the best she can, which displays her level of maturity.

Apt portrayal of campus life

I really enjoyed the first half of the book because of the very nuanced portrayal of campus life. It was very interesting to read how Selin tries to explore differences courses and hobbies to figure out where her true interest lies. The characteristics of Selin’s roommates and the situations that the face together provide comic relief and a certain amount of nostalgia is triggered for all those readers who have lived in dormitories. All the students at the prestigious institution are high-achievers, is most cases it is here that they have their first taste of rejection and the heart break that it entails.

Stretched out second half

Till the second part, Selin and Ivan are the quintessential “will they, won’t they” couple. Selin goes to teach English in rural Hungary, just to have an opportunity to spend time with Ivan in the hope that he would reciprocate her feelings. The entire second half is based on her experiences in Hungary and at times it does feel very stretched out. A lot of characters are introduced, mostly Selin’s mates and hosts from the trip. Most of them do not contribute much to the story and if I may say so, add clutter to the narrative.

Overall opinion

I think this is a book that would generate polarising opinions. The book is drawn heavily from author’s personal experience, hence it transcends the line between fiction and memoir. It is a light read, full of dry wit, if you can sustain your interest through the second half.

Overall rating : 3.75/5




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