Friday, 1 March 2013

Better to judge by its cover

You know, this book has a beautiful cover design. It's deceptively simple but very eye-catching, and I love the addition of the little cartoon animals sitting by Penelope suggesting that she is off in her own world, and the somehow jaunty font used for the author's name. The back flap tells me that the designer was Sian Wilson, so very many congratulations to her.

Having got my positive comments out of the way... on to the actual content. This book, which details Penelope's first year at Harvard, is bizarrely bad. I say bizarrely, because it isn't bad in any normally recognisable way - it's an awkward fusion of satire and light fiction, but even light fiction isn't usually this badly written. Reading it, I attempted a working hypothesis that the clunky writing was deliberate, that we are seeing everything through socially challenged Penelope's point of view and that's why all the characters seem so off-kilter and one-dimensional, but if this was Rebecca Harrington's intention, this doesn't really come off. As well as being annoying, the total lack of contractions in the dialogue reduces all the characters to sounding like each other, and although Penelope is obviously hopelessly out of her depth when trying to make friends, the other characters seem to share her problems, with a couple of minor exceptions. It's as if they're all attending Harvard in an alternative universe where nobody has ever experienced any human interaction before. Penelope's deadpan observations are obviously intended to be witty - although at the expense of the heroine, which is a dangerous game to play - but often fall flat. Occasionally, Harrington raises a laugh, as when she writes 'Two people walked into the library carrying toothbrushes because they were going to sleep there', a situation that Penelope clearly accepts as run-of-the-mill and never thinks about.

It's at these moments that I felt like I could see what Penelope was meant to be - a hilarious take on the sheer weirdness of Harvard through the eyes of a narrator who thinks all this is normal - but the crucial flaws I've already outlined stop it from working. I also thought that, to get full mileage out of this concept, Harrington should have chosen a narrator more like Penelope's roommate, Emma, who is as weird as Penelope in her own way but much more immersed in Harvard life. Penelope is essentially passive, spending a lot of time sitting in her room or waiting for boys to text her, and someone actively pursuing popularity, like Emma, might have made for a more dynamic main character. In many ways, this reminded me of Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep, a far superior read in every way, and I think another reason why 'Prep' works and this doesn't is that the heroine of Prep, Lee, while still fairly passive, is much more socially astute than Penelope and acts almost as an anthropologist, studying the bizarre culture of American prep schools even as she longs to be accepted into the popular clique.

I finished this book because it was remarkably easy to read, despite being intensely irritating at times, but the only reason I would pick up something else by Harrington is to see if she can use contractions and deliberately omitted them in Penelope. From the author's note ('I am grateful for all the hard work he put into selling this novel. He is the best!') I'm not holding out much hope.

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