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 Harrington’s Penelope I’m of a mind to propose a systemic redistribution of apostrophes. I doubt very much that something like “fresh salad’s” 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 don’t 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, it’s because that guy bloody uses contractions in his speech!)
Though pitched as a “quirky” coming-of-age novel in the vein of Curtis Sittenfeld’s excellent Prep, Rebecca Harrington’s 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. It’s 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 what’s supposed to be going on here is that we’re meant to be tightly knotted up in the perspective of Penelope, a girl whose social observations are so superficial and without nuance that they’re meant to give us caricatures and misreadings to which we’re 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 don’t think that I was meant to put down the book several times to check whether my edition was an unedited manuscript. (I’m 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 doesn’t mean to and getting offside those she wishes to ingratiate. But unlike Prep’s Lee Curtis, who though utterly unlikeable is insightful and socially observant, Penelope offers us nothing. She’s the lens through which we’re meant to see the complexities and inanities of college life, but she doesn’t 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 who’s only read the Wikipedia entry for it, and you’ve basically got this book.
The frustrating thing is that there’s 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 Excel’s graphing tools and some zingy narratorial observations–the high points of the book are those bits not delivered through Penelope’s point of view–and 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 doesn’t.
And it’s not just because Penelope’s humour fails to float (that’s kind of the whole point), but that for me this book as a whole doesn’t. I feel like it wants to be a book that is about the blandness and mediocrity of university life, something that’s so at odds with the “best time of your life” stuff that’s usually levelled at these year, but instead it’s 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 author’s age in their bio, not for me.
(Postscript: Just a hunch, but I’m going to guess that if you liked Vernon God Little, which I hated with a fiery passion, you’ll like this.)
With thanks to Hachette Australia for the review copy
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