“The Idiot” (2017) / Elif Batuman / 4.7.17

7 Jun

The Idiot, Elif BatumanWell, I had been really looking forward to this one. In fact, it had been on my list of must-read new releases since the beginning of the year, and I bought it the day it was published, and promptly began reading it. However, by the time I’d reached maybe the halfway point, I found myself just trudging through it.

I was interested in reading The Idiot because its premise intrigued me. It was billed as being a kind of clever coming-of-age thing set during the advent of the email age. Then I read it. It’s about a young freshman at Harvard named Selin. She’s of Turkish descent, and she’s interested in language. It’s the mid-1990s. Email is just becoming a thing. She takes a number of pretty interesting classes. We, the readers, get to attend some of them. She befriends a very funny and interesting Serbian girl named Svetlana. She begins a slowly simmering courtship with a guy named Ivan.

Elif BatumanAdmittedly, it has all the crucial elements. It has romance. It has humor. It has all the awkwardness and friendship and intrigue of a first year at college, plus it has scenery from around Cambridge and Boston that I happen to be personally familiar with, an added bonus for me. And it has all of this at a kind of breakneck clip, one anecdote to the next, no breaks, no chapters at all, just interesting tidbits from Selin’s classes interspersed with various odd social interactions, all rendered particularly and beautifully.

But where it ultimately disappointed is that it all went nowhere. This slow-burning, will-they-won’t-they, maybe-blossoming romance between Ivan and Selin is really the only drama, and it’s just not all that riveting. To put it bluntly, when the central dramatic pull of a novel on its readers is the question of whether a romantic coupling will or will not occur, it better be compelling enough to make the readers care whether they will or won’t. And for me, it just wasn’t.

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