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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 312

Elif Batuman’s novel is concerned with the first-year college experiences of a literature-loving young woman. One key theme is the challenges that people face in navigating a new environment, which for Selin is both Harvard University and Europe. Overall, as she finds refuge in the world of fiction, books provide solace. However, hiding out this way also blocks her ability to interact successfully with other human beings. These factors are ways the author presents the underlying theme of the connection between reality and fantasy. Equally important is the theme of language as it influences perception, as Selin is American-born of Turkish heritage and thinks both in Turkish and English. As the novel is set during the mid-1990s, technological features such as internet usage and email were relatively new. Accordingly, the author interweaves the theme of the effects of technology on communication, and perception.

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As Selin tries to settle in at Harvard, she simultaneously starts using email regularly and begins corresponding with Ivan, an older, Hungarian mathematics major; they are both studying Russian. While their remote relationship offers her the comfort of friendship, and then the excitement of love, Selin also distances herself from face-to-face interactions. Her intense devotion to literary works and themes also prevents her from fully experiencing her own emotions: Selin sees everything she does as a reflection of literary themes and the kinds of feelings that characters have, and she pigeonholes people into predictable roles. The commonality with Ivan in studying Russian promotes Selin’s tendency to place them within the dramatic sagas of Russian novels. Selin’s intelligence and perception are also apparent, however, when she admits self-awareness of the flaws in her approach. The change of scenery from Cambridge to several European settings places Selin to confront things, and other people, in person and acknowledge the dangers of hiding behind the fictional screen she created.

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