The Idiot

When Selin Karada, the slightly off-plumb narrator of Elif Batuman's first novel, The Idiot, enters Harvard in the mid-'90s, e-mail is a curious new way to communicate and Facebook is just a Zuckerberg dream. The daughter of ambitious Turkish immigrants, Selin was an academic star in her New Jersey high school, but at Harvard "you were now a little fish in a big sea." She nurtures a romance by e-mail with Ivan, the older Hungarian from her Russian class, yet she knows herself well enough to recognize that "I was just an American teenager--the world's least interesting and dignified kind of person." Nonetheless, she soldiers on, taking a job teaching ESL to immigrants in Boston, reading classics like "Bleak House, which was as simultaneously absorbing and off-putting as someone else's incredibly long dream," and signing up for a summer travel program providing English skills to children in Hungarian villages--with the vague plan to see Ivan there and meet his family and friends.

Batuman first explored some of the themes of The Idiot in her well-regarded first book, The Possessed. While the titles of both clearly reflect her fascination with Dostoevsky, they are nonetheless rooted in the language and optimism of the United States. Describing a year of discovering oneself, The Idiot is half The Education of Henry Adams and half Innocents Abroad. Twain would have savored Selin's first international trip, and Adams surely would have applauded Selin's frustration with traditional learning. First footsteps into adulthood are often memorable. Taking them in Selin's shoes is an entertaining, intellectual journey not to be missed. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

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