Penelope by Rebecca Harrington

A quick rundown… Penelope’s first year at Harvard University is full of awkward mishaps, from making friends to making out.

Strengths: Penelope’s awkwardness and nerdiness is palpable at times.

Weaknesses: Dialogue awkward, lack of use of contractions in characters’ speech.

Why I read it: Bought it with a Christmas voucher.

Pages: 294

Published: 2013

Publisher: Virago

Setting: Harvard University

Rating: 6.5 out of 10

Penelope was a book I had been eagerly awaiting. I love books about university life, from The Red Book to I Am Charlotte Simmons. I had the date of release marked in my diary and bought it the moment I saw it in the bookshop. I loved the birds on the front cover; the cat I’m not so sure about, as it turns out that Penelope is allergic to cats. That was my first warning that this book wasn’t going to be the voyage of liberation and self-discovery that I’d thought.

Let’s start from the start. Penelope is an odd character – we find this out almost immediately when her mother starts giving her instructions on how to make friends and removes Tetris off her phone. That’s fine, nerdiness is okay. Penelope lacks the knowledge of what constitutes a social conversation (discussing how you sat in a car booster seat until you were nine is not one of them) and she’s completely awkward. So of course we expect her to grow, make friends and find a place where she can be happy at Harvard.

Wrong. Penelope doesn’t appear to learn from her experiences at drunken costume parties or clumsy attempts at romance. She is awkward with a capital A, cringe worthy to the point it becomes so uncomfortable you want to look away because this is excruciating. Her actions and speech are unfathomable at times – not even funny in an evil way.

This brings me to another major point in this novel – speech. I found the speech of all the characters, not just Penelope, to be old fashioned and something out of the 1700s. The characters rarely use contractions when they speak – please find me a bunch of 18 and 19 year olds who speak like that! For example, one character says ‘That is what is so hard’ (girls are jealous of her). Wouldn’t it be more natural to say, ‘That’s what’s so hard’ or ‘OMG, it’s like so hard’? Or is this some satire that I’m completely missing? Whatever. It seems like the characters don’t really listen to each other either because most conversations end with an uncomfortable ‘awesome’.

Maybe I’ve missed something crucial here, and this is what life at university is truly like – flat, awkward and painful – and my personal experiences of fun, friendship and occasional hard work were out of the ordinary. Perhaps this is all satire that I’m too lowly to understand. Like, whatever – I’d give this book a miss or borrow it from the library if you must read it.


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