The IdiotPosted: May 11, 2017
by Elif Batuman
Penguin Press (March 14, 2017), 429 pages
Kindle edition $13.99, Amazon hardcover $14.16
Author Elif Batuman enjoys paying homage to Dostoevsky. She titled a previous book The Possessed. But Dostoevsky is not why I bought the present volume. I am a sucker for college campus novels and The Idiot is one of those. The novel also received excellent reviews, so I thought it would be worth my time.
The novel begins in 1995. Selin, the daughter of well-educated Turkish immigrants, is entering her first year at Harvard. Email is just starting to be widely used. Selin decides to take a class in Russian. One of the students, a senior, is a brooding figure named Ivan. Selin becomes obsessed with Ivan and develops a friendship with him. When Ivan heads to Cal Tech they continue their relationship via email.
Selin is a very smart woman, but not great at managing relationships. She continues her (strictly non-physical) relationship with Ivan even when she learns he has a girlfriend. She becomes part of a program teaching English in Hungary to be near Ivan over the summer in his homeland.
The writing in The Idiot is engaging and the book kept me entertained. In the end however…
(and here comes a spoiler—something I rarely do)
…we realize that it is Selin who is the idiot for continuing to have feelings for Ivan, who has a serious, ongoing relationship with a woman his age, who is off to study elsewhere in the world, and who will never return her affection.