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, who are panicking about getting into the right social clubs and frantically pulling all-nighters at the library - before classes have even begun. Penelope's roommates are Emma, crazed with social and academic ambition, and Lan, a rarely glimpsed misanthrope who has painted her room black, in case anyone is under the impression she might welcome visitors. The beautifully dressed, aristocratic upperclassman Penelope has admired from afar never seems to be in the freshman dining hall, so her plan to bump into him at the make-your-own-waffle station looks destined to fail. When she finds herself roped into an experimental production of Camus's Caligula, she begins to feel that her college experience is itself beginning to resemble an absurdist play. Penelope comprehensively explodes the myth that an ivy-league education is about lawns dappled with sunlight, cashmere sweaters slung over shoulders, and sparkling conversation over stylish cocktails.
Harrington's debut is a wryly funny bildungsroman chronicling the titular character's freshman year at Harvard, and all the supplementary standard collegiate fare-drunken parties and regrettable hookups, pretentious extracurriculars, friends with and without benefits, an incessant pressure to succeed, and the #1 question: Who am I? Relatively plotless, the novel still works in a meandering, searching way. Penelope is sweet but socially awkward, and woefully prone to let little things spiral out of control-during a drunken dance, a boy kisses Penelope, "mostly with his incisors," before vomiting on her shoes; and a favor for a roommate leads to a long-term commitment to a stage production of Caligula. While navigating the perilous social tides of the sea of her privileged peers, Penelope's heart floats between Ted, whose romantic involvement with Penelope's friend Catherine is ill-defined, and eccentric Gustav, who uses words like "darling" and "bourgeois," and prides himself on being "as primed for disease as an Indian." Penelope's candidly deadpan neuroses provide plenty of humor, and while the well-off kids of Harvard Yard might seem too aloof, in Harrington's hands they're entertaining company. Agent: Jane Finigan, Lutyens & Rubinstein. (Aug.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
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August 06, 2012
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