Harrington’s novel gives a fresh look into college life
By Shannon Draucker, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Tuesday, September 11, 2012
For over a century, many novelists have chronicled the experiences of college students. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s first novel “Fanshawe,” for example, is based on the author’s time at Bowdoin College in the 1820s. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s early novel “This Side of Paradise” explores the post-World War I “lost generation” through the lens of Princeton University student Amory Blaine. Tom Wolfe’s “I Am Charlotte Simmons” depicts the sexual debauchery of the students at fictional Dupont University. And now, 26-year-old Harvard University graduate and Huffington Post college editor Rebecca Harrington offers a fresh look at college life in her first novel “Penelope,” which was released earlier this summer.
At first, Harrington’s book — the cover of which is purple and portrays a waffle imprinted with the Harvard crest — seems like an average beach read for this year’s new crop of college freshmen. Readers might expect fluffy tale of an endearingly innocent, preppy protagonist as she is exposed to various forms of collegiate depravity for the first time. And while Harrington does illustrate played-out moments like Penelope’s first drink, her first hook-up and a housing conflict, the young author also offers a creative satire of aspects of the college experience unique to schools like Harvard. The world Penelope enters is inhabited by overachievers diligently studying for their math placement test during their first night of orientation, trust-fund children lamenting the prospect of summer jobs at their fathers’ companies and avant-garde theater majors working on experimental renderings of canonical plays. Harrington provides witty observations of various aspects of freshman life: drunken nerds recovering from their first pregame, the “Counting People” math course for humanities majors and the dining hall waffles emblazoned with the Harvard crest. From Harrington’s intricate imagery and droll dialogue, readers can tell that the author has lived through many of the encounters she illustrates.
It is Harrington’s heroine, however, who makes the novel truly unique. While many female protagonists are “adorkable” (in a Zooey Deschanel, “I’m kind of weird but also cute and endearing” kind of way), Penelope emerges as just plain awkward. Harrington’s honest portrayal of a real kid — a smart girl who is keenly observant but socially clumsy — is refreshing for readers who may have encountered similarly uncomfortable moments. When Penelope’s roommate Emma reveals that her dad speaks fluent Russian, Penelope awkwardly asks, “Does he walk around in a fur hat in Moscow?” During her first week, Penelope, who has a crush on Hercule Poirot, spends most of her time watching detective mysteries. When her dorm mates discuss how “cute” the Harvard waffle is, Penelope questions if the crest ruins the waffle eating experience. Penelope’s random observations and awkward inquiries create moments that are nail-bitingly uncomfortable but also supremely genuine. Furthermore, the dialogue between the characters does not always flow smoothly and effortlessly, making them realistic. Harrington is careful to include numerous pauses in dialogue, monosyllabic responses and conventions of teenage slang in her characters’ conversations to heighten this sense of reality.
Although it is a bildungsroman in nature, “Penelope” does not culminate with any grand realizations or huge life changes on the part of the protagonist. Penelope performs averagely in her classes, engages in a brief romantic dalliance, plays a minor role in a school play and befriends a weird but nice girl named Catherine, with whom she plans to live during sophomore year. No extraordinary event befalls Penelope, and the novel itself is largely devoid of major plot twists. It is this sincere depiction of a quirky quasi-misfit in a world of pre-law go-getters and trust-fund kids that renders “Penelope” not only a satire of the Harvard world, but also a sincere portrayal of an average kid.