This novel is not a retelling of the Dostoyevsky novel…I mean, I think…I haven’t read it yet.
But what this book is, apparently, a kind of roman a clef, supported by the biographical details that overlap with Elif Batuman’s own, but also her own interviews in which she talks about the thin lines between fiction and nonfiction.
The novel is about a young Turkish-American woman from New Jersey’s first year at Harvard as an academically gifted and academically intelligent young woman who is emotionally unready for a lot of what adulthood means, including what to do with education and how to turn it into a life of sorts. She is also romantically ignorant and falls overly hard into love with an emotionally unavailable but still plugging along with it Hungarian math student named Ivan.
The result of course is a lot of heartbreak and frustration. Because of these various setbacks and because of her own earnestness Celine’s decisions involving pushing further and further into trouble. Because of Ivan’s general fuckboy nature, he lets her. The novel is written with a kind of detached airiness about the experiences, so in way of plot, there’s events, but there’s a lot of thoughtful narration not on the specific moments within events but on the thoughts and ideas swimming around the head of Celine as she experiences this events. There’s a lot of confusion of cultures and languages and literatures and how they create or don’t create understandable and liminal identity…one’s own sense of identity or understanding someone else’s. There’s a sense of emotional frustration involved in trying to think your way through understanding someone else’s decisions and actions and even words, something no one has ever been able to do ever.