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An odyssey towards pointlessness.

February 10, 2013

When I spotted Rebecca Harrington’s debut novel Penelope on the shelf of my local bookshop, I became (foolishly) very excited and purchased it immediately. Penelope is about a rather awkward Harvard freshman’s first few months of university life. Penelope, with her ‘lank hair’ and odd habit of telling people that she rode in a car seat until she was in fourth grade, expects groundbreaking things from her new life at one of America’s most privileged educational institutions. The reality—full of aggressive nerds, judgmental rich people, and socially impaired roommates—is rather more disappointing.

So is Rebecca Harrington’s book. There’s an art to the campus novel, and recent laudable efforts such as Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding and Jennifer Miller’s The Year of the Gadfly are testament to its continued relevance and versatility as a genre. Harrington is Deputy College Editor for the Huffington Post and a Harvard graduate; surely, with these impressive credentials, she should be capable of producing more than Penelope, a stilted, dull, and poorly written attempt to satirise the contemporary college experience.

It’s quickly clear that Penelope isn’t going to win any prizes for social grace: driving to Harvard for the start of the academic year, her mother warns her, ‘don’t be too enthusiastic, don’t talk to people who seem to be getting annoyed, and for heaven’s sake, stop playing Tetris on your phone at parties’. (Even my mother has more tact than this.) Sure enough, Penelope’s first weeks at Harvard bring a series of embarrassments and disappointments: her roommates are awful, her classes are tedious and she can’t seem to make any friends, although an awkward boy named Ted insists on making unwanted advances that Penelope apparently fails to recognise for what they are. (Penelope is extremely obtuse, to a point that goes well beyond comic and strides blithely across the suspension-of-disbelief border). Things start to get interesting (in Penelope’s life, not in the life of anyone actually reading this book) when Penelope meets Gustav, a German-British-sounding man plucked straight from the fiction cliché shelf: he wears tweed and uses terms such as ‘I say’ and ‘chap’. People like this are not real in 2013. I also question whether it is possible to sound both German and British at the same time.

In fairness, it’s not all bad—there are glimmers of talent here. Harrington occasionally comes out with a line or image that sardonically captures what I imagine it must be like to study at a place such as Harvard, surrounded by a mix of odd, brilliant, and/or pretentious minds in the flush of youth and the process of intellectual discovery. Penelope takes a minor role in a campus theatre group’s experimental production of Caligula; during rehearsal, she watches a scene where the two leads are ‘clad in matching bloody tutus and dancing ballet to the recorded sound of barking dogs. It was not one of Penelope’s favourites’. When she tries to join the Harvard literary magazine, she has to critique a short story wherein ‘the main action seemed to involve drinking orange juice and killing a homeless man’; it’s admired by another student as ‘very visceral. The way the orange juice and the killing of the homeless man are on the same level’. There’s a certain disturbing level of familiarity here for anyone who studied literature at university and was forced to extract the most obscure of meanings from the most obtuse of texts.

Fundamentally, however, Penelope—the character and the novel—lacks depth, and the flimsiness of its construction makes it devoid of any true observational power and wit. The mild absurdity of Harrington’s characters and their situations feels forced and dry, as though she took a few stock figures from the archetypal Ivy League college experience and overstretched them to the point of meaningless transparency.

Worst of all is the dialogue, which is so stilted it made my eyes hurt. Also, no one in this novel speaks in contractions: ‘”There is a party at the Ten-Man in Currier tonight.”’ Ted tells Penelope. ‘”Ooh, a party. I have not been to one of those yet.”’ she replies. Really? No one I know talks like this. Especially no one I knew when I was 18 and starting university talked like this. Ever.

Not much happens in Penelope, and its characters are so bland and irritating—I’ll give it to Rebecca Harrington, that’s a difficult feat to pull off—that it becomes very hard to care about what happens to any of them (which isn’t much) after about page 10. This is a hugely underwhelming first novel, made more so because it could have been an excellent read—the setting and subject matter lend themselves perfectly to a cutting send-up of modern student life. Unfortunately, just like that elective undergrad course you chose because you thought it would be awesome and it turned out to be terrible, Penelope is a slow and tedious disappointment.

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