Elif Batuman has a gift for making her very particular experience feel universally relevant, not to mention irresistibly appealing. Her 2010 memoir-cum-travelogue, The Possessed, chronicled her student adventures in Russia and Uzbekistan, where she went to revel in her obsession with the regions' literature. Now in her debut novel, The Idiot, Batuman fictionalizes her collegiate beginnings, following the tall, goofy, earnest Turkish American Selin Karadağ through her first year at Harvard. Like The Possessed, named for a classic about a group of intellectuals who descend into madness, this book also takes its title from a Dostoevsky novel: the story of the holy fool Prince Myshkin, whose guilelessness and goodness led others to exploit him. Selin is as ingenuous as Myshkin, but luckier in her friends and family. Her Turkish relatives are wowed by her; the simple fact that she has a Harvard email address is a sign of her success: "You'll be so fancy," her aunt gushes.
Still, Selin feels clueless compared with her peers. When her friend Svetlana, who considers herself a "sexual bomb waiting to explode," asks, "Are you planning to have sex in college?" Selin admits, "I never really thought about it." When another classmate breezily asks, "How's it going?" she shuts down because "I couldn't think of an answer." Trying to improve her communication skills, Selin takes language and linguistics classes that confound her further. When she calls her mother to commiserate, her mom pooh-poohs her angst. "Don't let any of this lower your mirth index," she counsels.
As Batuman's novel courses beguilingly through the white water twists of Selin's freshman year, the reader tags along with amusement and a sense of recognition. This bildungsroman reminds us what's at stake for everyone who struggles to grow up—no less than "the invention of the self"—even as it winks "don't take it all too seriously."