Selin is the luckiest person in her family: the only one who was born in America and got to go to Harvard. Now it's sophomore year, 1996, and Selin knows she has to make it count. The first order of business: to figure out the meaning of everything that happened over the summer. Why did Selin's elusive crush, Ivan, find her that job in the Hungarian countryside? What was up with all those other people in the Hungarian countryside? Why is Ivan's weird ex-girlfriend now trying to get in touch with Selin? On the plus side, it feels like the plot of an exciting novel. On the other hand, why do so many novels have crazy abandoned women in them? How does one live a life as interesting as a novel—a life worthy of becoming a novel—without becoming a crazy abandoned woman oneself?
Batuman has a gift for making the universe seem, somehow, like the benevolent and witty literary seminar you wish it were ... an even better, more soulful novel. Selin is more confident and, more important, so is Batuman ... This novel wins you over in a million micro-observations ... When Selin does begin to have sex, she is so perceptive that the scenes are a wonder ... When you write as well as Batuman does, there are worse fates. But you wonder if the next two novels will recount Selin’s junior and senior years, in a Harvard quartet, and what would happen if Batuman kicked away from shore.
Either/Or shares none of the chastity of its predecessor ... It is as if Batuman set out to respond to her detractors and...couldn’t help overachieving in the process. But the sex is not gratuitous ... The novel meanders along as she experiments with sensualism. As Selin bounces from one experience...to the next, Either/Or never gets tied down to any one story line. Batuman is not about to concoct some equivalent to the marriage plot; an aesthetic life necessitates narratological promiscuity ... The sequel is a more explicit künstlerroman than its antecedent ... Either/Or could double as a syllabus. Batuman’s newest narrative is propelled by Selin’s encounters with various works of art ... With the raw sincerity and droll insight into the rarefied world of academia that readers will remember from Batuman’s previous books, Selin recounts her initial toe-dip into hedonism ... One of the criticisms levied at The Idiot was that Selin seemed to lack a political consciousness. However one comes down on the debate over whether literary fiction should be held to such a standard, Either/Or is enriched by Batuman’s decision to raise the stakes of the novel’s central theme ... As for what kind of life is worth reading about, some will no doubt be prompted to wonder just that after closing Either/Or ... Plenty of people might ask themselves why they should bother with a whole novel about an antic undergrad obsessed with the dilemmas of art-making. I confess I felt a tinge of the same vexation ... Perhaps it should be enough to say of reading Either/Or that I enjoyed the experience.
Batuman’s success in Either/Or is how thoroughly she exploits the gap between Selin’s scepticism about the creation and the consequences of literature and her narrator’s wonderfully idiosyncratic comic voice ... Her story has much in common with the picaresque; episodic in structure, filled with acquaintances, misadventures and strangers whose motives are questionable, it is meandering rather than propulsive ... Either/Or does not exactly conclude; rather, a third volume seems almost inevitable.