Louise McCune at the LARB:
During a psycholinguistics lecture on diacritics, our narrator marvels that, in Europe, “even the alphabet [emits] exuberant sparks” (see: a, â, á, and à). One could apply a similar assessment to Batuman’s prose style: her wit is like a firecracker. In passages like this one, Batuman shows us that she can fill daydreams and “empty” days with exuberant sparks:
The professor was talking about the differences between creative and academic writing. I kept nodding. I was thinking about the structural equivalences between a tissue box and a book: both consisted of slips of white paper in a cardboard case; yet — and this was ironic — there was very little functional equivalence, especially if the book wasn’t yours.
These moments of cunning wordplay, subtle humor, and deft imagery are frequent, but alone they do not fuel this novel. While the pyrotechnics delight, there is a fire smoldering beneath that can burn. This is a coming-of-age novel: at the gravitational center of Selin’s reveries is the question of how to be: How to be a writer? How to be a lover? How to be a person?