1995, Selin, daughter of Turkish immigrants, has just finished high school and can leave New Jersey behind to study in Harvard. She is unsure of what to study, where to begin to understand the miracles of life and the world. It is literature and linguistics that capture her attention first. She studies Russian and tries to understand the mechanism of how language works. She makes friends with Svetlana, a Serbian classmate, and Ivan from Hungary with whom she sits in the Russian classes. She falls in love with the charismatic mathematician who quite often shows strange behaviour. But in writing each other emails, they find a way of expressing their feelings. Selin seizes the chance to go to Ivan’s native country in summer with a programme to teach English in remote villages. This is where she really gets an impression of the world, much more than all her courses in Harvard could ever teach her.
Elif Batuman’s protagonist Selin is a very attention-grabbing character. On the one hand, she is quite intelligent and intellectual, on the other, she is completely incompetent when it comes to dealing with people and analysing her feelings. This makes it difficult for her to understand the relationships she has. At the beginning, she needs the simplistic Russian-for-beginners story about a young woman falling in love to parallel her own feelings, later, when she leaves her English-speaking environment, the misunderstandings due to lack of language knowledge somehow work as a cover for her. She is absolutely ignorant about who is she and who she wants to be. Literature is her way of learning about people.
The novel’s title has been borrowed from Dostoyevsky, yet there are no clear parallels to be found by me. The only one might be in the protagonists’ character, both Myshkin in Dostoyevsky’s novel and Selin are open-hearted and innocent-naïve when they enter into contact with the real world. They are somehow unique and do not have an easy start in adult life. Selin is always afraid that she is not intellectual enough for Harvard, she wants to say meaningful things and starts questioning even single words. Thus, she spirals down to appoint where there is no meaning anymore. From the bottom, she has to create meaning for herself anew.
Apart from the two very noteworthy and fascinating characters of Selin and Ivan, what I appreciated most was the style of writing. Batuman plays with the content, the psychology and philosophy of language is paralleled in her writing, it sometimes breaks down to very plain sentences and then they are full of double meanings. The author is especially strong in finding metaphors and comparisons, in particular with nature which brings the theoretical cogitation back down to earth.
It is not a very typical coming-of-age novel, it is much more intellectual and demanding, but nevertheless I also found it entertaining.