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Review: Penelope by Rebecca Harrington

Penelope by Rebecca Harrington Review: Penelope by Rebecca Harrington

I used to run a blog called Misapostrophication. In large part it was a catalogue of the terrible ways in which apostrophes were misused, mostly by cafe owners who laboured under some sort of egalitarian punctuation ideal where every word had a right to an apostrophe. Now, having trudged through Rebecca Harringtons'Penelope Im of a mind to propose a systemic redistribution of apostrophes. I doubt very much that something like fresh salads'really'has need for an apostrophe, after all. Such a piece of punctuation would be better off being inserted into the dialogue of this book.'Because, seriously, this thing is more stilted than a circus clown walking around on eight foot tall barge poles. Listening to William Shatner recite haikus in Morse Code would be easier on the ear than this.

Why are you attracted to this guy again? said Ted. I dont really get it. I am going to be honest.

Really? said Penelope.

Yeah, said Ted. He seems like such a weirdo. But I am not a girl, I guess.

Maybe that is why, said Penelope.


(Maybe, thinks this reader, its because that guy bloody uses contractions in his speech!)

Though pitched as a quirky coming-of-age novel in the vein of Curtis Sittenfelds excellent'Prep, Rebecca Harringtons'Penelope is as awkward and inept as its protagonist, and bar a few moments here and there the book is an excruciating read. Even more so than your typical cafe menu. Its a frustrating, underdeveloped book that from its leaden prose to its robotic dialogue to its emaciatedly drawn characters feels horribly like a first draft.

I think whats supposed to be going on here is that were meant to be tightly knotted up in the perspective of Penelope, a girl whose social observations are so superficial and without nuance that theyre meant to give us caricatures and misreadings to which were supposed to shake my head and say, oh, Penelope, you quirky, gormless thing you. I think I was meant to delight in the satire of it all. I dont think that I was meant to put down the book several times to check whether my edition was an unedited manuscript. (Im still not certain about this.)

The book follows bumbling Penelope throughout her first year at Harvard University and touches on all the usual stuff: dorm room dramas, unrequited love (okay, unrequited attraction), bad parties, and pretentious tutors and even more pretentious drama types. Penelope navigates all of this using her internal compass of'apathy and gauche agreeableness, monosyllabically charming those she doesnt mean to and getting offside those she wishes to ingratiate. But unlike'Preps Lee Curtis, who though utterly unlikeable is insightful and socially observant, Penelope offers us nothing. Shes the lens through which were meant to see the complexities and inanities of college life, but she doesnt actually show us anything. Everything here is flat caricature and lame, tired pisstake: it lampoons all the usual suspects. Imagine Jeffrey Eugenides'The Marriage Plot described to you by a surly teenager whos only read the Wikipedia entry for it, and youve basically got this book.

The frustrating thing is that theres real potential in Penelope. From the theatre of the uber-absurd through to the regurgitative clashing of the minds in the tutes of ridiculously named classes, Harrington is on to something, if not something especially innovative or new, here. There are oh-so-true scenes about fighting with Microsoft Excels graphing tools and some zingy narratorial observationsthe high points of the book are those bits not delivered through Penelopes point of viewand deadpan humour that would be hilarious if it worked (I am afraid I will get allergies, says Penelope upon being offered a line of cocaine), but on the whole doesnt.

And its not just because Penelopes humour fails to float (thats kind of the whole point), but that for me this book as a whole doesnt.'I feel like it wants to be a book that is about the blandness and mediocrity of university life, something thats so at odds with the best time of your life'stuff thats usually levelled at these year, but instead its a book that itself is bland and mediocre. And desperately short of dialogic contractions. Honestly, the key point of interest here is what on earth Penelope wrote/enclosed in her application essay in order to get accepted to Harvard in the first place. In all, as with most books that state the authors age in their bio, not for me.

(Postscript: Just a hunch, but Im going to guess that if you liked'Vernon God Little, which I hated with a fiery passion,'youll like this.)

Rating: star Review: Penelope by Rebecca Harringtonhalfstar Review: Penelope by Rebecca Harringtonblankstar Review: Penelope by Rebecca Harringtonblankstar Review: Penelope by Rebecca Harringtonblankstar Review: Penelope by Rebecca Harrington

With thanks to Hachette Australia for the review copy

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  1. Eeek. Those uncontracted pronoun-verb pairs are making my teeth hurt.

  2. Eek. Have heard a bit about this book and really dont think Ill be reading now. Plus, its Harvard. I really cant bear Yale and Harvard books.

    • Honestly, for all the main character engages with her environment she could have been at any university! :) I definitely wasnt a fan of this one, and looking around it seems to have very mixed reviews.

  3. OMG! Im reading a book exactly like this, but not at all. The grammar and writing are driving me nuts! Ive been bookmarking pages because I think Im going to do a whole blog on the parts that made me go, Murr?

    Its kind of disappointing because the alternate universe/fantasy world is really interesting. The major plot line has potential. But the writing is making it very hard to read. Its unfortunate. Im reviewing the second book as part of a blog tour (Im reading the first book to get a feel for the authors works), and Im crossing my fingers and saying my Pagan prayers that the second book had a better or different editor.

    • Ive read a couple like this recently. :S And I just gave up on a YA series last night because the writing was so appalling.

      I hope your blog tour book picks up! Its strange the sort of stuff that is able to get through these days.

      • What is even more surprising to me is that the version I have on my phone is the second publication of the book. I dont even, what? My Kindle App version is now full of bookmarked places. Im definitely saving them up for some future posting.