I’m not sure what to make of The Idiot. I thought I knew, but when I went to add it to Goodreads, the featured review was from Roxane Gay. Gay detailed all the things I disliked about the book as the reasons she loved it, which made me start to rethink.
Narratively, the book focuses around Selin, a Turkish-American student at Harvard in the early 1990s, and is broadly speaking split into two halves: her first year at college navigating the beginnings of a linguistics degree, and then her experience as an English teacher in rural Hungary. I definitely enjoyed the first half more, as the major development that prompts the trip to Hungary also had the added effect of making Selin rather infuriating. Namely, falling in love with Ivan, an emotionally and intellectually manipulative older student. While she’s always a little passive and meek, despite being talented and intelligent, her pseudo-relationship with Ivan puts the former traits into overdrive. By the end of her year at college, she’s become prone to self-sabotage and won’t stop making her own life difficult, which is a very frustrating thing to observe.
On reflection then, I feel that this is proof of the point that it’s important to distinguish between characters you like, and characters that are well written. Selin and Ivan, and indeed Svetlana, Selin’s domineering Serbian classmate, are all exceptionally well formed, if rarely likeable or pleasant. This is even more impressive given that Batuman’s prose is stylistically rather sparse and restrictive, which in itself plays into the ideas about language that Selin muses on several times.
So rating this is a little hard. I initially gave it 2/5 on finishing, however on reflection I would probably raise it to about 3 or 4, because while reading it wasn’t a particularly enjoyable experience (it took me the better part of two months to bring myself to finish it), I can appreciate that in a literary sense, it’s actually a really good book. Make of that what you will, I suppose…