Thursday, March 14, 2019

Book 172: The Idiot



"I wrote her phone number on my hand, while she wrote mine in her daily planner. Already I was the impetuous one — the one who cared less about personal safety and tradition, while Svetlana was the one who subscribed to rules and inherited systems, and wrote things in the designated spaces. Already we were comparing to see whose way of doing things was better. But it wasn't a competition so much as an experiment, because neither of us was capable of acting differently, and each viewed the other with an admiration that was inseparable from pity."

Dates read: August 23-29, 2017

Rating: 8/10

Sometimes I feel like I'm learning in reverse: when I was a teenager, I was sure I know pretty much everything, and the older I get, the less I feel certain of. I think many other teenagers are the same way...at least, the ones I've known. Sometimes I almost miss that blazing moral clarity, the certainty that I was right and someone else was wrong. But letting it go (for the most part) has made me an easier person to get along with, and a better one overall.

Selin, the protagonist of Elif Batuman's The Idiot, has the opposite problem. She's a freshman at Harvard, and she's overwhelmed by all she doesn't know. She doesn't know where her life is going, really, she doesn't know what classes she wants to take, she's not sure how to help the students she's been assigned as a part of her volunteer work doing adult education. She can't even figure out how to fall asleep regularly, adding exhaustion on top of her confusion. She kind of drifts along, and one of the places she drifts is into a beginner Russian class, where she meets two people that change her life.

One is Svetlana, an immigrant from the former Yugoslavia, who decides she's going to become Selin's friend and does so with aplomb, quickly becoming the dominant force in Selin's social life. The other is Ivan, a senior from Hungary, who becomes Selin's conversation partner for Russian class, and correspondence partner over the then-new medium of email outside of class in English. Their conversation gradually turns into them spending time together, and Selin develops an intense crush on him. Even after she learns he has a girlfriend (and while he's giving her very mixed signals), she takes up an opportunity to teach English in Hungary over the summer in the hopes of getting to spend time with him.

This book, like last week's Stoner, has a very passive central figure. Selin's unsureness about virtually everything means that she mostly reacts to the world around her instead of being proactive. This makes her simultaneously very relatable (who hasn't felt paralyzed with indecision, especially in a new situation?) and quite frustrating. If you've ever lived through the experience of having feelings for someone who wasn't quite sure what they wanted, you find yourself wanting to reach through the pages and shake her by the shoulders while telling her that this isn't going to end well. But you also know there's no way to learn that lesson except living through it, because you probably ignored the person who shook you by the shoulders and tried to warn you off.

Batuman is an incredible writer...I highlighted so many things on my Kindle that she wrote that just seemed to perfectly capture the essence of being young and lost and desperately self-conscious. And she creates a very real, sympathetic-even-as-she's-irritating character in Selin. The plot structure, though, could have used some work. While she's at school, the book meanders along slowly and had a hard time holding my interest despite the lovely prose. Once she gets to Hungary, however, and starts interacting with host families and students, the book gets much livelier and there were several moments that were actually laugh-out-loud funny. It's not that I didn't enjoy the portion of the book that takes place at Harvard, but I enjoyed the last quarter-or-so so much more. I wish Batuman had figured out a way to disperse some of that levity more equally throughout the book, because it's like 3/4 a good book and 1/4 a really good book. As is, though, I'd recommend this book, to recent-ish college grads in particular (I feel like if I were too much older than I am now, I'd be too annoyed by Selin to really enjoy what it had to offer).

Tell me, blog friends...did you ever have one of those flirtations with mixed signals?

One year ago, I was reading: Stiff (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Green Girl

Three years ago, I was reading: To Die For

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