The Idiot by Elif Batuman
I liked this book a lot. I liked this book a lot until it ended. It was one of those narratives that enrolled you in an experience, a year of life, and dropped you off at the end in the same way that it picked you up at the beginning. I wanted to stay on the journey, but that is how we all feel about youth.
Elif Batuman's The Idiot is set primarily at Harvard in 1995, a girl's freshman year and the summer that follows. She learns new things, feels optimistic and cynical about different paths, gets her grip on freedom through new friendships, odd waking hours and a preoccupation with language. She and her friends watch cassette tapes from video rental stores that no longer exist. She falls for a senior mathematician through his words - this new thing called e-mail - and his uncanny personality. In many ways, they create a bond through reference and structure only they understand. This goes all year. In real life, they are in Beginners Russian I together. They become to exist more clearly online. But eventually, they meet for long walks. He has a girlfriend but they share a compelling intimacy. He tells her to come to Hungary to teach English in the countryside over the summer and hang out with him in Budapest on the weekends. She goes. She longs for him. She observes the world around her in the days that separate her from, first, his words, and, later, his presence.
It is not really building toward anything. But it reminds you of the pain of growth, and the wonder of life, at that formative time. Though not that many years further from that time in my own life now, I found myself reminiscing constantly. Experiences from ages 18 to 22 so easily sum up the drama of life. We are still going through things for the first time. The randomness of the world, the way connections are made and unmade, rang so miserably and magically true for me as I read this book. The boldness and the naivety and freedom of youth. Is it really over? Have I already lost touch with it?
As I read this, I felt like I began to understand every writer who has ever centered his or her story on this phase of life. We are a nostalgic humankind. I especially miss those (un)real life, written romances, where, too shy in person, I put all my affection into words. I had many of these growing up: Brief interpersonal encounters that developed more through writing. I fell in love a few times this way. I can remember it so clearly.
This book was great for remembering what it was like to explore your own mind for the first time, in an erudite environment, and to explore it, again for the first time, with someone else.