CBR Bingo – two books, one square (and a Bingo!) – adapt, because that’s what we’re all trying to do in college
I read The Idiot and Either/Or back to back, so it felt more like a single, longer volume than reading two separate books. Based on Goodreads reviews, some felt that the tone in the second book was a bit different – that wasn’t my experience, but again, back to back reading might help with the feeling of consistency. I think that’s an important note because the TONE of these books is really specific. Batuman reminded me a great deal of Sally Rooney – her narrator is a highly intelligent woman entering her first year of college (each book covers a year in the life of Selin), and this highly intelligent woman is also quite socially awkward. We’re privy to her inner life, a running monologue filled with amusing observations about her fellow classmates at Harvard, and essential questions about how humans relate to one another.
In The Idiot Selin arrives at Harvard in the late 1990s, trying to balance her feeling that she is special with her new reality among so many talented, brilliant people. Her parents emigrated from Turkey, and Selin, who speaks Turkish, has an interest in learning more languages. It is during her Russian class that she meets Ivan and Svetlana, two people who will come to define her first year at college. Svetlana is bold, incredibly smart, and has an openness about her that Selin, who lives her life very internally, craves. The book is set during a pre-cell phone era, when the prospect of emailing someone was fresh. Selin begins an email correspondence with Ivan that is slightly absurd, loosely based on the bizarre Russian text they are reading in class. From there, Selin’s first foray into a sort-of romantic relationship begins.
The novel stays with Selin through her summer months, where she agrees to teach English in Hungary because that’s where Ivan is from and where he’ll be. Ivan is a senior, a math major who is nearly as enigmatic as Selin. She’s never able to fully understand him, or what their conversations mean. Their attempts at talking in person are disastrous, and the more she learns about him, the more impossible it seems that he could ever be her boyfriend. But it’s not clear that a traditional “boyfriend” is what Selin wants, anyway.
Either/Or picks up at the start of Sophomore year – gone are the freshman year roommates, assigned by the school – now, Selin gets to pick her housemates, which changes some aspects of her social circle (though she and Svetlana – smartly, I think – choose not to live together, they remain friends). Selin is recovering from whatever happened with Ivan, trying to make sense of everything that she felt and his reactions. This being a novel about a college student who was the opposite of precocious in most social matters, Selin eventually discovers sex with men – this takes up quite a bit of the latter half of the novel.
The author has said that these books are more or less autobiographical – this was her experience as a young woman. She has said that she started writing The Idiot much closer to the college experience, but ended up publishing it far later in life, so that it seemed to be almost a historical novel. When she wrote Either / Or, she was already in a relationship with a woman, and so the novel is an attempt to explore the heteronormative forces that shaped her early desire. Viewed from that lens, the depictions of the various relationships that Selin engages in (from friendships, to one night stands) are not only familiar to many of us from our own college days, but also an illustration of how we enforce the slimmest view of desire in our society.
I imagine there will be more books about Selin in the future, and I’m sure that I’ll read them. I think this is a really specific voice – a privileged voice, to be sure – but I’m interested in how Batuman writes, and I’m invested in the story of Selin.