Book Review: The Idiot by Elif Batuman

Readers familiar with the author's bestselling literary memoir "The Possessed" (as well as her frequent contributions to the New Yorker) will already be aware that Elif Batuman is one of the purest comic talents going around. The good news is that the transition to fiction has done nothing to diminish her characteristic mix of dry observation and bemused self-deprecation. Beginning as a fairly straightforward take on the 'campus novel', "The Idiot" tells the story of Selin, a bright but somewhat naive Harvard undergraduate, and her developing relationship with Ivan, a moody and often inscrutable young mathematician. In cataloging the missed connections and nagging self-doubt of their initial furtive encounters, Batuman mines these familiar situations for every ounce of their comedic potential. As the relationship between Selin and Ivan develops, however, Batuman's book becomes something more: a deeply insightful - and often touching - rumination on idealisation and the limits of language. In the character of Selin, Batuman has created one of the more genuine and memorable literary protagonists in recent memory; mingling a taste for flights of abstract reasoning, with clear-eyed and minutely detailed attention to the matters of the heart, Selin will quietly occupy a corner of your mind and will remain there long after the final page has been turned. 

Verdict: "The Idiot" is far more enjoyable than a novel about linguistic philosophy, Russian literature, and Hungarian public transport has any right to be.

- Dan