Elif Batuman’s Either/Or is a delightful invitation to reunite with Selin by picking up her adventures where we left off in The Idiot. Now a sophomore at Harvard University, Selin continues to explore, meander and wonder throughout the autumn of 1996, the spring of ’97 and the summer that follows.
Selin’s voice is notably more mature, more reflective and perhaps more droll, and yet she’s still true to herself as she tries to figure out who, exactly, that self is and can be. She attempts to make sense of the previous summer—her travels in Hungary, her time with her crush, Ivan, and his strangeness and distance, and all the many experiences she’s lived but doesn’t yet understand—and searches for guidance through the works assigned for her literature class, including The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin, Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust, Either/Or by Søren Kierkegaard and more.
As Either/Or moves through the year, Selin begins to live actively rather than reflexively; she develops agency, and her choices have power. As she shows an increasing awareness of and engagement with the world, she starts to move out of her novels and into her own self.
Readers will find the tensions of history and present-day politics difficult to miss while reading Either/Or: Russian literature is a strong influence in Selin’s life, and her on-campus job is at the Ukrainian Research Institute. The 1990s technology is a throwback and a joy, and it’s fascinating to consider the ways that email and the internet have changed and shaped everything in our world, from relationships to travel. There’s humor in the lived experiences of parties, classes, alcohol and sex, and Batuman’s balancing of all these elements is remarkable.
Our present moment will change, and technology will continue to evolve, but undoubtedly Selin’s voice will remain a gem.