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This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at ASU chapter.

The one thing I always want when starting a new book is to find a piece of myself in the pages. To feel a memory surface when the protagonist struggles, cries for no reason or falls in love. To know what the knots in her stomach actually feel like. Relatability: it’s key in any piece of adult fiction, where they capture a figment of life through paper and ink. The Idiot by Elif Batuman does just that and more, making it the most recent addition to my five-star list. 

The book centers on Selin, a Turkish-American student starting her freshman year at Harvard. From that first line, I’m sure you’re thinking of a cheesy Wattpad story, where the star girl is beautiful, intelligent and Harry Styles’ girlfriend. This book is anything but that. 

Selin is the most realistic protagonist I’ve read about. At points in the book, she seems to disconnect from her own thoughts and emotions. According to her friend Svetlana, Selin lives life aesthetically (one of the main conflicts of the novel exists between living aesthetically or ethically, continuing on into Batuman’s sequel). What this means is that she acts more recklessly for the sake of commodifying her existence, prioritizing its beautification over practicality, although Selin disagrees with this opinion of her. 

The novel is an acclaimed bildungsroman, meaning it centers on the character’s formation and growth, psychologically and morally. We see Selin’s inner thoughts, nerves, and personal quirks. She analyzes every interaction she has microscopically as well as macroscopically. The way she and Svetlana consider themselves the protagonists of their own existences makes them characters amongst people. 

She exhibits slightly compulsive behavior, and it helped to make me feel seen. Never before has there been a literary figure who thinks the exact same as I do: dissecting every word composed in an email to keep up with self-imposed expectations. 

We see this most in her interactions with Ivan, an older Hungarian student she meets in a Russian language course. Their relationship exceeds its own understanding, to say the least. [If you would like to read this book without any prior knowledge, as I recommend, then it’s best not to read on.] 

In the first half of the novel, they only communicate via email and avoid one another in real life, afraid that physical communication would ruin the depth of their connection. At least, that’s what Ivan says to Selin, prompting her to spiral into an over-analysis of their interactions and her ability to write back to him. Ivan perpetuates the idea that everything Selin writes to him is entirely unique, and he has never wanted to know someone as badly as her. 

While it seems rational to think they would become romantically involved, the difficulty lies in Ivan having a girlfriend, despite exhibiting a clear tenderness for Selin. The novel is complex in this sense, as the two lie on a level of academic synchronicity and poetic alignment, despite being driven apart by simple misinterpretations and language barriers. Once they do begin conversing in person, they fail to understand one another constantly. Selin will try to joke with him, Ivan won’t understand her, and she will refuse to explain; they repeat this (somehow) intimate cycle throughout the novel, providing readers with familiarity. 

The novel follows this relationship, her time at Harvard, and a trip to Hungary toward the end of the plot. It is underlined with nearly incomprehensible interpretations of language, its abilities, and its importance; Batuman herself studied Russian, so the heightened knowledge of linguistics is understandable. The constant disconnect between Selin and Iva is perplexing and yet originates through language. 

It is witty and poignant, and Selin acts seemingly randomly at every turn. One of my favorite examples of this intelligent, yet nearly pointless banter comes from a scene between Selin and Ivan: 

“‘I’m so hungry I could eat the first thing I see,’ he said. 

‘That sounds like a curse in a story–like, you say that and then the first thing you see is your favorite sheep.’

‘I don’t have a favorite sheep. When I’m hungry, it’s just sheep and non-sheep. Food and non-food. By the way, are you food?’ 

I thought about it. ‘I don’t know.’

‘Don’t worry, I wouldn’t eat you. You’re my favorite sheep.’”

As a 19-year-old college student, Selin made me feel perfectly seen and comfortable. She is decisive in her own mind but passive in action; she is a conformist, yet defiant; intelligent, in all the traditional senses of the word, but idiotic (hence the novel’s title). Selin becomes everything and yet remains nothing to her readers, a soft line devised by her own style of prose. 

The novel culminates in the terrible realization that Selin is destined (or cursed) to be a writer. I loved the way Batuman tackled this often triumphant hill, the ultimate understanding of what you are meant to be. As a young writer, it sang to me; seeing the world with the eyes of a poet is as much a burden as it is a gift. 

If you love poetic literature and get lost in the minuscule (but lovely) details, this book is for you. If you have compulsive tendencies or heightened anxiety, this book is for you. If you are a writer and a new one at that, this book is for you. Basically, what I am getting at is that The Idiot is a book for anyone and everyone. At the end of the day, we are all idiots in our own right. 

Mia Milinovich is a junior at Barrett, the Honors College, studying English (Literature) and Journalism & Mass Communications. She enjoys writing, reading, listening to garage rock, and going to random, last-minute concerts.