Penelope – Rebecca Harrington

Date read: 9th January 2014
Publisher: Virago
Release Date: 7th August 2012 (US), July 2013 (UK)
Length: 302 pages
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased from Waterstones

Penelope - front cover

Goodreads description

When Penelope O’Shaunessy, “an incoming freshman of average height and lank hair” steps into Harvard Yard for the first time she has lots of advice from her mother: “Don’t be too enthusiastic, don’t talk to people who seem to be getting annoyed, and for heaven’s sake, stop playing Tetris on your phone at parties.” Penelope needs this advice. She is the kind of girl who passes through much of her life with coffee spilled on her white shirt, who can’t quite tell when people are joking, and who, inevitably, always says the wrong thing. But no amount of coaching will prepare Penelope for the people she meets at school.

Gloriously skewering the social hierarchy of college, Penelope is the brilliantly funny story of one of the most singular, memorable heroines in recent fiction.

My review:

I was so excited to read this book – I had heard nothing about it until I happened to see it displayed in the Book Club section of Waterstones. I liked the look of the cover, really really liked the sound of the blurb, so picked it up along with a couple of others, and it languished on my bookshelf until I picked up as part of my ‘I must read books that I’ve had for ages otherwise I will never read them, ever’ resolution. I really wish that I had read it when it was the book club selection in Waterstones as I think the discussion would have been a fascinating one.

I can’t quite work out if the book is meant to be satirical – if it is, then it’s so subtle as to be nearly invisible, and if it’s not, then I don’t quite grasp what Harrington wanted her book to be.

Penelope is one of the most annoying heroines I’ve ever come across in reading – I want to describe her as quirky but that doesn’t quite bring across her personality – to me, the word quirky brings up an image of some sort of manic pixie dream girl, and Penelope is about as far away from that as it’s possible to get. The way she and her friends speak isn’t the way I imagine any college freshman to speak – I know it’s ten years since I was a freshman, but I’m pretty sure 18 year olds still use contractions in their sentences, and don’t say things like:

“It seemed like a really toothy kiss”, continued Ted, indefatigable in the cause of truth, because of objectivism. “Was it?”

“It was on the toothy side,” said Penelope. “I think. That point of the night is rather hazy to me. I think I blocked it out.”

There are no likeable characters in this book. At ALL. But the way the book is written suggests to me that this was meant to be the case and they were all deliberately insufferable… In which case, why read it? I don’t know. I certainly don’t know why I finished it.

Comparisons to Prep are moot – I thought that as a literary novel about education the two would have a certain amount of crossover, but that wasn’t my experience. I guess that in Prep none of the characters were particularly likeable, but the difference is that I actually cared about their fates, and the book was genuinely well-written. I refuse to take this book seriously when the ostensible love-interest is a German-Argentinean, British-educated, guy named Gustav, who gets his own suite in Harvard as he has never been immunised against disease, and says things like:

“An arboretum, darling, is a collection of trees…I have no great truck in the thing myself, but Harvard has one, and my family supports it rather extensively. Once a year or so, I go out there and check how everything is doing… we do help everything stay tip-top. You should see the state of other arboretums. None of them has wheelbarrows decorated with a crest. Or a twenty-four hour hotline for plant identification.”

Gustav also jets off to Japan or skiing for weeks at a time. And recites limericks at parties. Of course he does.

I will not be re-reading this book. That’s not to say that I have anything against satire, but I at least like to know when I’m reading it, and for it to make me care enough to read it, rather than want to throw the book against the wall. Grr.

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