In many respects, The Idiot by Elif Batuman is a coming-of-age story. Readers meet Selin, a second-generation American, as she prepares to begin her freshman year at Harvard in 1995. Eager to make the most of her time at University, she signs up for classes that she hopes will broaden her horizons and open new areas of interest for her. As Selin begins her coursework, she also begins making friends.
Selin befriends a Svetlana, an outgoing and seemingly sophisticated classmate who is from Serbia. In the newly minted age of email, Selin also begins corresponding with Ivan, an advanced mathematics student from Hungary. In the friendships that Selin forms with these two individuals, she feels a kinship in their connection to Eastern Europe—though from different countries and cultures; Selin's parents emigrated from Turkey to the United States. As the school year ends, these three friends all prepare for a summer abroad: Svetlana in Paris, and Ivan and Selin in different parts of Hungary.
For Svetlana and Ivan, a summer in Europe is neither an exercise in tourism nor unfamiliar. Selin, however, finds herself occupying an entirely new place in the world—not only physically but emotionally as well. While teaching English in the Hungarian countryside, Selin's time abroad becomes an opportunity for deep introspection and self-discovery. The expected, stereotypical experience of loud, indulgent, and wild American college students abroad takes on a much quieter and contemplative tone as Selin seeks to gain the most she can from her experience.
The title of the book is as self-effacing and poignant as Selin's own journey of self-discovery is as she navigates young love, grapples with questions of passion and vocation, and emerges as a fledgling writer. The novel charts her trajectory as a human being who recognizes her own naïveté, inexperience, and her desire to learn more about herself and the world around her.