The Idiot by Elif Batuman [in Library Journal]
Batuman makes her fiction debut already a literary darling: a New Yorker staff writer since 2010 and the author of a much-adored essay collection, The Possessed, about the pleasurable intricacies of reading Russian literature.
The year is 1995, and Turkish American 18-year-old Selin enters Harvard. She takes classes and makes friends, but her most important connection develops via email – new and enigmatic back then – with Ivan, an older student she rarely sees although she pines for his virtual missives. With freshman year over, she stops through France on her way to Hungary – because Ivan is there – where she’ll be teaching English in a small village. Back at Harvard in the fall, she realizes, “I hadn’t learned anything at all.”
In 2006, Batuman’s “Short Story & Novel” contribution to highbrow literary journal n+1 included the line: “Write long novels, pointless novels.” The Idiot is just that. As if to add further emphasis, Batuman plods through almost 14 hours of narration. With a novel so thoroughly hyped, listed, and award-predicted, perhaps disappointment is inevitable.
Verdict: Despite Batuman’s obvious erudition, crafting gorgeous phrases and being fluent in both philosophy and philology aren’t enough to redeem this Idiot.