304pp, hardback, £14.99
Reviewed by Elizabeth Hilliard Selka
This is a confusing novel. You could read almost the first half wondering how such adolescent twaddle ever got published. In a tedious account of a teenager’s arrival and first term at university (the establishment in question is Harvard), Penelope’s, her contemporaries’ and Rebecca Harrington’s language is peppered with ‘awesome’, ‘hilarious’, ‘totally’, ‘insane’, ‘literally’, misuse of words such as ‘fun’ and ‘tan’ (as in ‘an unseasonably tan girl stood up’), sloppy mistakes like ‘shamble’ when what is meant is ‘amble’, and so on and so on, the characters’ insincerity of utterance matched only by its inanity. It’s as much fun as cold porridge and reading it a form of torture. And it’s not only dull but predictable: our heroine falls in love with a tall boy with floppy hair and a crumpled linen suit called, if you can believe it, Gustav.
Then, suddenly, a good way into the book, at a meeting at which potential new members offer themselves to the college literary magazine, Penelope becomes funny. The inflated, self-engrossed pretension of the kids running the show beggars belief and the penny drops. It’s all ironic! The entire thing is a send-up, making fun of this elite’s affectation and conceit! So that’s all right then.
And it gets funnier. Penelope gets roped into a student production of Albert Camus’s Caligula by her hysterical room-mate Emma. It’s an absurdist performance directed by a man in a black beret called Henry Wills-Mather in which Penelope is promoted from spear-carrier to various speaking parts and ultimately to chief marionette operator (don’t ask) due to the high drop-out rate from the cast; her other room-mate, taciturn Lan, is reputed to be a brilliant at lighting planetaria (Emma calls them ‘planetariums’) and is roped into designing Caligula’s lighting, with a black spotlight at its climax.
There is also a dark side to Penelope’s experience. The floppy-haired fellow takes her to bed. It is not spelt out if they actually have sex. If not, he’s a monumental tease. If so, then it’s apparent to the reader but not to Penelope in her good-natured naivety that he is using her as a convenient fuck-buddy whilst excluding her from his social life – not the real relationship that Penelope longs for and deserves. The boy who really likes her wears shorts on all occasions and is too feeble to resist being ensnared by a girl with enormous breasts. He does however at one point manage to kiss Penelope, an experience which she likens to having a dying fish flapping about in her mouth. Oh, the horror, the horror of being a newcomer at this university! The parties are terrible, while everyone pretends they are fabulous. The teaching and the quality of conversations late into the night are disappointing. The awfulness of everything begs the question, do they not have Freshers’ Week with all its friendly inclusiveness and in-hall communal activities at American universities?
Perhaps first year is a rite of passage, something to be endured in order to reach the nirvana of the following years. As painted here, however, it’s grim and hollow. The only redeeming feature is Penelope herself who may be inexperienced and lonely but tries to be honest, with herself at least, and even she spots that her tutor is a creep.
Then, like that first appalling term, it comes to an inevitable end. Everyone goes home. That’s that, until next term, which fortunately we are spared. This is Rebecca Harrington’s first novel. She was herself at Harvard. So time will tell if this novel was a one-off flash of semi-autobiographic cleverness or, on the contrary, Penelope signals the emergence of a fresh and piercing comic talent.