Funny, first novel about freshman love at Harvard

“The Idiot” (Penguin Press), by Elif Batuman

“The Idiot,” Elif Batuman’s beautifully written first novel, is a wry, funny coming-of-age story set at the dawn of email among a group of Harvard brainiacs too nerdy and self-involved to even think about sex, drugs and drinking, the usual pastimes of college students.

The heroine, Selin Karadag, is the good-hearted, naive yet preternaturally wise daughter of Turkish immigrants. When the story begins, she is shopping for classes and getting to know her overachieving roommates.

Over the course of the novel she will fall helplessly in love with an older boy named Ivan in her Russian language class. She will even travel to his native Hungary to teach English over the summer in the hope of spending time with him.

Their tortured but chaste relationship develops largely through the new medium of email. And when she isn’t musing about such things as the difference between Noam Chomsky’s view of language and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, she agonizes over his cryptic emails.

Readers figure out long before Selin that the relationship is doomed. Yet, as must happen in novels of this genre, she endures and emerges a wiser and more spiritually perfect being.

Batuman, a staff writer for The New Yorker, has an extraordinarily deft touch when it comes to sketching character. There’s Selin’s friend Ralph, for instance. The two met at a summer program for high school students about the Northern European Renaissance.

Ralph is premed but taking art history and thinking about majoring in government. The thought of majoring in government is baffling to Selin, who knows she will be a writer. “It wasn’t clear to me what was going to happen to them after college. Were they going to be our rulers?” she wonders.

That deadpan voice, so suited to Harvard Square, gives way to slapstick humor in the latter part of the novel, when she meets her hosts in the Hungarian countryside. Here Batuman captures the antic quality of Americans abroad interacting with non-English speaking locals.

The novel fairly brims with provocative ideas about language, literature and culture. The title itself pays homage to Dostoyevsky’s namesake novel, whose main character, like Selin, is so good and noble he might be mistaken for an idiot.

And while the plot proceeds at the stately, sometimes tedious, pace of the 19th-century novels Selin is reading for a literature course, you won’t want to miss it — as long as you’re willing to feel empathy for a bunch of superior beings who in one way or another are destined to be our rulers.