The Idiot

The Idiot, a wonderful, meandering, bildungsroman novel by Elif Batuman reminded me a lot of one of my favorite novels of all time, Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman. In Woman, we meet and get to know an older woman in Beirut, through details about her life as a book shop clerk and lifelong reader. As in The Idiot, there is a a lot of detail and commentary on small stuff, the small stuff of life. On the surface, this stuff doesn’t advance the story. But it allows us to get to know the protagonist.

That’s what this is book is for. For us to live life as Selin for some hours. To see how the daughter of Turkish immigrants, at the edge of adulthood, sustained by a love of books and enough self-doubt to balance her great taste in literature and life, traverses a moment of major transition in her life. In so far as this book accomplishes this feat, it aspires to and achieves the thing that perhaps all novels and literature should aspire to. I loved spending time with Selin. I found so much sympathy for her. Her search for who she is, what she likes, her constant questioning of how she understands the world to work, her great taste, and the missing knowledge that everyone else is faking it, too, and as that as soon as she can accept that, she can soar as herself. Sometimes I still feel like I’m doing this. I know, for certain, that it was what I was doing as a freshman in college.

To me, the best parts of this novel focus on Selin’s experience at Harvard, especially her budding friendships and email courtship with Ivan. When the novel follows Selin to France and Hungary, my interest waned slightly. But, overall, I really enjoyed this book. And will be thinking of Selin for years to come. Just as I think back on Aaliya from An Unnecessary Woman often.