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.
The book gallops along at a brisk pace, rich with cultural touchstones of the time, and one finishes hungry for more. I reread The Idiot before reading Either/Or and after almost 800 cumulative pages, I still wasn’t sated. Batuman possesses a rare ability to successfully flood the reader with granular facts, emotional vulnerability, dry humor, and a philosophical undercurrent without losing the reader in a sea of noise ... What makes a life or story exceptional enough to create art? What art is exceptional, entertaining, and engaging enough to sustain nearly a thousand pages? Selin’s existential crisis within the collegiate crucible haunts every thoughtful reader ... The novel stands on its own as a rich exploration of life’s aesthetic and moral crossroads as a space to linger — not race through. Spare me sanctimonious fictional characters locked in the anguish of their regretful late twenties and early thirties: May our bold heroine Selin return to campus and stir up more drama before departing abroad again.
While Ms. Batuman’s witty, memoiresque novels of ideas may not ultimately attain such a monumental scale [as Proust], she has struck a rich lode that, perhaps down the line, could lead her from questions about love to questions about mortality and time ... What elevates this far above the typical campus novel is Ms. Batuman’s wry perspective ... Selin’s observations are frequently hilarious, sometimes touching and always original ... There’s both a sweet innocence and a sophisticated meta aspect to all this, a level on which Either/Or is about how Selin (and her creator) came to create the very book we’re reading ... Charming, hyper-literary ... To be continued, we hope.