Penelope: a quick, laugh-out-loud read that may be slightly over-the-top

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Penelope (2012), is the debut novel from Harvard graduate and Huffington Post writer, Rebecca Harrington, and emerges as a fast-moving, totally hilarious, and often pointedly realistic (if, at times, tragically so) novel on a girl’s first semester at Harvard University.

Penelope enters Harvard as an “undeclared” freshman, who seems to be dramatically unprepared- and apathetic for that matter- in comparison to her hyper-competitive peers.

Penelope knows very little about “getting ahead” at Harvard (especially in relation to her “friends” who seem to have read quite a few orientation books that Penelope, herself, neglected). Her naivete sets her up for an assortment of hilariously awkward engagements such as auditioning for a singing group, despite knowingly close to nothing about singing. Plus, Penelope’s non-pulsed personality, and constant desire to seem agreeable to all, add an additional factor to make for some laugh-out-loud conversations and situations.

What I ultimately loved about Penelope was that, despite it being a witty illustration of Penelope’s mundane life, it does dig a little deeper than what is on the surface. In her juxtaposition of Penelope’s slightly sanguine apathy towards her “mediocrity” at Harvard against the dramatic break-downs of her over-achieving peers, Harrington forces the reader to question who really has it better: Penelope or those aforementioned peers who seem to have mastered the recipe for “success.”

One of my favorite citations of the novel comes when Penelope and her roommate, Emma, discuss Emma’s recent “A-minus.”

(Emma) “It’s not good enough for law school! If I was planning on doing nothing with my life, then [an A-minus] would be fine.”

(Penelope) “But its pretty early on, you know. I’m sure it doesn’t matter much. You could even have fun all semester and it wouldn’t matter.”

(Emma) “I am having fun! I am having incredible fun! I am meeting incredible people and I am making the best friends of my life!”

And while it is clear that poor Emma really does not have quite those “best friends” she adamantly defends, what is truly depressing is her need to convey a constant aura of success, even in her social life. It is a sadly realistic illustration of modern-day perfectionism. Meanwhile, Penelope is confused as to why she is not living the “ideal” college experience- going to cool parties and having hoards of friends. Harrington suggests that Penelope’s problem may be less of a reflection of her “under-achievement,” and more of a reflection of her (unintentional) refusal to self-inflate. In a Facebook-centric world where individuals have the ability to publicly present their lives in whichever light they choose, this theme hits hauntingly close to home.

My only criticism of Penelope is that Penelope’s character is slightly over-exaggerated in her naivete and social failures. While her experience is refreshingly closer to my own than say, the experiences of college students on shows such as Greek or the recent movie, Spring Breakers, Penelope’s personality, honestly, approaches the border of “socially-challenged.” And though her awkwardness provides the backbone of much of the novel’s humor, Penelope may have been an even more powerful character if that awkwardness had been subdued a few shades.

Ultimately, Penelope is a fun, quick read that will leave you laughing out loud. I would recommend this book to 20-somethings who want to reminisce on their college years, and take comfort in a shared feeling of “inadequacy” due to failure to meet some illusion of the “perfect college experience.”


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