Rebecca Harrington’s debut novel, like its heroine, shouldn’t be judged by its girlish cover. Dotted with classical literature in-jokes, “Penelope” is a clever read about the absurdity of the Ivy League experience: the hookups, the all-night “pregaming” and the waffle irons branding the college crest on students’ breakfasts.
Based on Harrington’s own experience at Harvard, the book also touches on the isolation often felt by college freshmen. Penelope O’Shaunessy arrives on campus a blank slate: She has no friends, and she hasn’t reviewed her all-important freshman orientation packet. She spends the first few weeks eating alone, watching detective movies on her laptop and sniffling through allergy attacks brought on by her goth roommate’s feral cat. This puts her, of course, in stark contrast to her ultramotivated peers.
“I wanted to have her be there as a counterpoint to everybody else,” Harrington tells us. “I was using a lot of English campus novels as models, where the hero is usually male and they usually never explain how he got to Oxford or Cambridge, and he doesn’t seem particularly motivated.”
But while Penelope falls prey to the usual drinking- and dating-related college mishaps, she never abandons her dorky core in favor of Harvard manners. As in the classic campus novels Harrington references, virtue is rewarded and the villains get their comeuppance.
While “Penelope” is an ideal read for the class of 2016, it will also resonate with those navigating life after graduation. “I think feeling left out of things is so incredibly universal,” Harrington says. “I think it’s more about that than Harvard specifically.”
“But,” she says, laughing, “I do think it’s a good primer if, let’s say, you’re sort of a nerd.”
Harrington is now the college editor at the Huffington Post — another institution itching for parody. Will it inspire a second book? “No,” she says. “The thing about Harvard is that there are so many absurd elements to it. It was rife for satire.”