But the title is, of course, a reference to Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel of the same title. And while I haven’t read Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, I have read his Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov and am intrigued by his works. In fact, it was because of Crime and Punishment that I visited St. Petersburg about ten years ago. And I already had a copy, so I gave it a go.
Batuman’s novel focuses on the narrator, Selin, a American teenager of Turkish descent, in her first year at Harvard. I’m not going to worry about spoilers here because literally nothing of any importance happens in the entire novel. What we get is a narration of every random observation and pointless interaction Selin observes for one year. She goes through her academic year taking a bunch of courses about language (Russian, linguistics, philosophy of language, etc.) and meeting a Hungarian graduating senior in mathematics, Ivan, on whom she develops a crush.
That’s it. No point to any of it, just lots of details about nothing. When the school year ends, she spends two weeks in Paris with her friend, Svetlana, then five weeks in Hungary, teaching English, and then goes to Turkey to meet up with her mother and other relatives. Nothing important happens in the summer, either.
This book has been compared to Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. But no. There’s no epiphany here. There’s no coming of age. This doesn’t show Selin becoming a writer (what she says she wants to be). She learns nothing, by her own admission.
I’m clearly not smart enough to get the point of this, because as far as I can tell, it’s 423 pages of pretentious randomness, making no point whatsoever. Worst book I’ve read this year.