Elif Batuman's new coming-of-age novel blurs the line between memoir and fiction

This pleasantly rambling tale, narrated by a smart but hesistant linguistics student, leaves a vivid impression
July 20, 2017

The Idiot by Elif Batuman (Jonathan Cape, £16.99)

In her acclaimed first book, The Possessed (2010), an unstuffy work of non-fiction about Russian literature, the Turkish-American writer Elif Batuman blurred the boundaries between memoir and criticism.

Her charming new book—a gentle coming-of-age novel drawing on Batuman’s time at Harvard in the mid-1990s—does the same for memoir and fiction.

It’s narrated by Selin, a smart but hesistant linguistics student with a crush on Ivan, a maths major from Hungary who sends her riddling late-night emails.

When she follows him home for the summer vacation on the pretext of teaching English abroad, the question of whether they’ll get together before he begins a PhD at a different university on the other side of America (not to mention the issue of how honest he’s being about his existing girlfriend) adds a measure of drama to a leisurely narrative built chiefly out of essayistic vignettes in which Selin contemplates matters from Beatles’ lyrics to the idiosyncrasies of Turkish grammar and much else besides.

Her self-doubt is a rich source of comedy: eating in front of Ivan, she tells us she “didn’t want to be the kind of person who lost her appetite over some guy, so I ate a few chickpeas. Then I thought, why should I be the kind of person who eats when she isn’t hungry, just to prove some kind of point?” It’s in such acute portrayals of early adulthood’s uncertainties that this pleasantly rambling tale leaves its most vivid impression.