Rebecca Harrington’s first novel, “Penelope,” is about an awkward young woman in her freshman year at Harvard. While driving her daughter from Connecticut to the dorm, Penelope’s mother suggests strategies for making friends with grim references to failures of the past. She must repress her impulses to be overly enthusiastic and generally off-putting. Would that Penelope actually was either of those things—aside from a few non-sequiturs, she seems an average college freshman. Mildly witty, reasonably intelligent, she’s neither exceptional nor remarkable, but she does attract the attention of some of her male classmates. She finds herself in the odd spontaneous embrace, which she analyzes with something like scientific curiosity.
Penelope only has eyes for an aristocratic one-percenter with a better wardrobe than personality. Rhapsodic descriptions of his velvet jackets and twill trousers ensue. I suppose an extremely well-dressed man on a college campus would make a fine impression. I work on a college campus (which partly explains my general ire for college novels) and can assure you that the average uniform consists mainly of flip-flops and sloppy pants topped by t-shirts. In fact, flip-flops are worn well into the winter months, with complete disregard for either warmth or proper arch support. Harrington, a quite recent Harvard graduate herself, touches upon the unique social structures of the elite university (as well as more common forms of dress), but one wishes she’d pushed the critique and consequences further. Penelope bumbles alongside her classmates without goals or even desires—it’s like she arrived at Harvard Yard without ambition. Harrington’s first novel is more like a nonfiction guide to not making waves in school. She creates in “Penelope” a kind of introduction to university (and Harvard-specific) culture—like shopping for classes, final clubs, “punching,” “comping,” “TF” instead of “TA,” “concentrating” instead of “majoring” and so on.
What “Penelope” suffers from the most is the almost complete lack of plot. In this book, a late-night discovery that a printer was out of paper served as the height of action. In one chapter, titled “Penelope Attends a Disturbing Party,” literally nothing happens except she dances the moonwalk. Rising sophomores’ pathetic Machiavellian strategies to being assigned the best housing options are the closest approximation of villains. What Harrington does get right is girls’ passive-aggressive treatment of other girls. Penelope’s female roommates and classmates, ostensibly her friends (it takes her quite a while to realize they’re not), are jealous, suspicious and downright cruel. Penelope’s cluelessness in the face of this behavior is mildly baffling—for example, when one self-absorbed roommate tells her she must stop seeing her booty-call Lothario, not out of Penelope’s best interests, but because she’s interested in snagging him for herself, Penelope agrees without a moment’s thought or hesitation. I really wanted to like this boring heroine, who, upon her first overnight stay in a boy’s room makes the decision for herself, “This evening, she wasn’t going to do anything she didn’t yet know how to do, so as not to expose herself to censure or ridicule; but she also wasn’t going to be needlessly reticent in a way that made her stand out from other girls her age.” (She sleeps in her pants.) Ultimately the character falls flat—she’s neither interesting nor unique. This book might be worthwhile for students graduating high school and entering college, but its lack of critique and diversity make it difficult to recommend. (Kelly Roark)
by Rebecca Harrington
Vintage, 288 pages, $14.95