Author: Rebecca Harrington (twitter)
Release Date: January 24th 2013 by Virago Press/Hachette
Age Group: Young Adult/Adult
It’s not every day a book like Penelope finds itself in one’s hands – or mailbox.
Accompanied by a personalised note singing its praises, and a double-sided page of gushing commendations from the staff of its Australian publisher, Penelope made grand promises, and charmed me from page one.
Prep meets The Marriage Plot in this uproarious debut novel, a send-up of campus life starring one singularly unprepared, socially maladroit, charmingly clueless freshman named Penelope.
When Penelope O'Shaughnessy arrives on the Harvard campus she is amazed: she has never seen such a vast and majestic Au Bon Pain. She has also never met anyone like her fellow freshmen. Everyone is overwhelmed and overworked, striving to get into the right social clubs and frantically pulling all-nighters at the library - and classes haven't even begun.Penelope's roommates aren't exactly the soul mates she had hoped for (Emma is a social climber intent on punching The Pudding, while Lan is a misanthrope who paints her room black). Meanwhile, her 'Images of Shakespeare' class seems mostly to involve angry discussions over whether or not the Bard was overweight; the dorm room 'pre-game' sessions never seem to lead to a real game; and the aristocratic upperclassman she has admired from afar never seems to be eating in the freshman dining hall, where she might woo him alongside the make-your-own waffle bar. When Penelope finds herself roped into a production of Camus' Caligula, she begins to worry that her entire college experience is beginning to resemble an absurdist play.
A laugh-out-loud depiction of college life, PENELOPE announces the arrival of a deliriously funny new writer.
Those of us who didn’t have our day in high school, are often advised to wait. That high school isn’t everything. That, eventually, the popular kids will wind up selling cars or hamburgers, while for us, the awkward, the quiet and the outsiders, the best is yet to come. As Elizabeth Halsey sagely advises in Bad Teacher, “I’m thinking college is your window.”
So it is, with years spent cultivating personality, peculiar anecdotes about car seats and a Tetris addiction to rival Elvis’ love of cheeseburgers, Penelope arrives at Harvard ready for her day. And her first year is going to be a very long day.
Now. I loathe the word ‘quirky’ with an irrational intensity. Yet I can think of no term which better suits Penelope and its titular protagonist. With its sweet, intellectual humour and matter of fact whimsy, there is a touch of fairytale to its pages.
Penelope herself is a peculiar character, hapless and naïve, yet practical – somewhat. There’s something of Amelie to her and, despite claiming to loathe whimsy in all its forms at one point in the novel, she’s possessed of a certain matter-of-fact dreaminess which fits the word perfectly. What makes her so utterly charming is how relatable she is as a character. From her social awkwardness and proclivity for playing Tetris on her phone instead of talking to her vaguely neurotic way of seeing any given situation, I rather felt I knew Penelope as I know myself.
With the familiar tone of a humorous observer and a plot concerned not with what is happening, so much as to whom, Penelope has been likened to the work of Wes Anderson, and it is not difficult to see why. There’s a delightful incongruity between Harrington’s writing and the book’s semi-adult subject, and it is this which lends the book its fairytale leanings. After all, infant-eating witches are not light reading, but when told with childlike honesty it lends new perspective. Penelope is hardly this dark, but the deceptive simplicity and levity of its tone hides something sweeter and deeper.
Penelope is not a love story, nor a coming of age story, but a simple insight into Penelope and her friends' life with often humorous honesty. With an affable and ‘quirky’ protagonist and Rebecca Harrington’s charming prose, Penelope's delightful naïveté will prove a welcome balm to all who have ever felt out of place.
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