This is the strangely compelling story of Selin, a freshman at Harvard in the 90s--significantly, at the advent of email. A high school overachiever, Selin now finds herself uncertain, sometimes flailing, and searching, both in her academics and her social life--a state relatable to many a college freshman. Language becomes her means of searching for connection and truth, both through her linguistic studies and through writing. Deadpan and sometimes very funny, Selin is also an innocent. She starts a friendship with a compelling student named Ivan, unavailable but charismatic and irresistible, eventually following him to Hungary for a summer teaching program.
But this is less about the events--it will drag, if you like a plot-heavy novel--than about the disorientation that sometimes seems inevitable at 19. I love Roxane Gay's Goodreads review where she says, "Several times, I thought, “I am not smart enough to understand everything that is happening here,” but I kept reading." This is exactly how I felt, but I also sensed that Selin and Ivan often didn't understand what they were talking about either, in that way of college students who think they know it all and desperately need to keep up the facade, both to each other and themselves. I really liked this for its unflinching peer into those years of uncertainty, poor decisions, and total inability to remove ourselves from any of it. It's so different from anything I've read that it's hard to recommend to any particular kind of reader; approach it with patience and an open mind and you'll be rewarded with some insights and great humor, but I wouldn't be surprised if many readers didn't finish this either.
From the publisher’s description:
A portrait of the artist as a young woman. A novel about not just discovering but inventing oneself.
The year is 1995, and email is new. Selin, the daughter of Turkish immigrants, arrives for her freshman year at Harvard. She signs up for classes in subjects she has never heard of, befriends her charismatic and worldly Serbian classmate, Svetlana, and, almost by accident, begins corresponding with Ivan, an older mathematics student from Hungary. Selin may have barely spoken to Ivan, but with each email they exchange, the act of writing seems to take on new and increasingly mysterious meanings.
At the end of the school year, Ivan goes to Budapest for the summer, and Selin heads to the Hungarian countryside, to teach English in a program run by one of Ivan’s friends. On the way, she spends two weeks visiting Paris with Svetlana. Selin’s summer in Europe does not resonate with anything she has previously heard about the typical experiences of American college students, or indeed of any other kinds of people. For Selin, this is a journey further inside herself: a coming to grips with the ineffable and exhilarating confusion of first love, and with the growing consciousness that she is doomed to become a writer.