Rebecca Harrington has written one helluva good romp through freshman year at Harvard in her debut novel Penelope. It is a laugh out loud funny story about a socially awkward girl trying to navigate the highly fraught waters of Harvard’s social world. She is a fish out of water. When everyone else seems to know everybody else in this elite fishbowl, she knows no one. When everyone else seems to know where they should be and more importantly with whom they should be seen, Penelope is left wandering around alone, longing to play Tetris.
Penelope was not unused to nerdiness. She had hung around with nerds her whole life, or tried to, for nerds can be very exclusionary.
Harrington’s brilliance comes from the way she portrays the people with whom Penelope comes into contact. To a certain extent these people are mere stereotypes of those one meets at university, but in a way that is precisely what makes them so real. One of the things I loved was how the ‘cool’ people in the novel are constantly describing one another as ‘hilarious’. This phrase is used so often to describe anyone and everyone that it essentially becomes meaningless and turns into the most banal of statements. Similarly, all the students that surround Penelope are constantly complaining about all the work they have to do. Again, this seems to be a familiar chorus of university life, complaints about workload while doing very little besides complaining about it. And while everyone else seems to be struggling to get good grades, Penelope sails on by, barely aware that there are assignments to be done. That seems to be the one fault in the novel. I was left wondering how Penelope ever managed to get into Harvard when the competition seems so tough.
Who would like this book? This book is for those who love a good humorous look at college life. Penelope is funny and makes for good social commentary that goes beyond the Ivy League. In some ways it reminded me of I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe. Both novels deal with the perils of social relationships in closed communities and devastation that one false step can unleash. Penelope is a fast read and would be ideal for a plane or one concentrated sitting.