drea 's Reviews > Penelope

Penelope by Rebecca Harrington
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Jun 22, 12

Recommended for: Anyone who appreciates quirky, smart humor
Read on June 21, 2012

My college had its freshman orientation over one weekend in the summer, and they had it in waves according to where you fell in the alphabet. You showed up, took your placement exams, met with an advisor, planned your schedule, and then stayed in the dorms to socialize with soon-to-be fellow classmates. It was snack-sized college experence, in preparation for the big collegiate candy bar that, I assumed, would be chockablock with exciting Nuts of Life Experience. (If you are allergic to nuts, then chocablock with life-experience marshmallows or . . . sea salt. Toffee? Doesn't matter.)

I remember taking the placement exams and poring over the course book, probably because that was the most fun I had all weekend. And I mean that--it was legitimately fun, and I was legitimately good at it; if success meant figuring out how to find a fluffy science requirement like The Wide World of Birds, then pssshhhht! This life thing was in the bag.

But that weekend wasn't about just finding science requirements and testing out of French. It was also about making friends. That's where things started to get dicey. I ended up in a single room, but you know what, nbd, I would go to the friends! The friends were just waiting to be found. And yet as I walked around the campus, there was a problem I had not foreseen--everyone already seemed to HAVE friends. Some people had entire dorm rooms of friends, dinner tables of friends. Some had entire VOLLEYBALL TEAMS of friends, and no one seemed to need one more.

I lingered in a lot of doorways that weekend and introduced myself to people who didn't care. I sat around looking invested in things in the hopes it would seem like I had a vivid and exciting internal life so someone would come up and chat, but no one did. It remains one of the most profoundly lonely weekends of my life, and one of the most terrifying, because it was the weekend I realized that things don't automatically change because you made it through high school. Why, oh why, had I not made more friends from high school who had also chosen this state school and whose last name also, coincidentally, began with R? No one told me!

I am forcing everyone down memory lane like this because I don't know if I've ever read a book that captures this feeling of expectations vs. reality as well as PENELOPE, an absolutely delightful and highly absurdist caricature of one girl's freshman year at Harvard that also manages to hit a whole lot of truths about the college experience in general. In many ways, Penelope works like a mini-Liz Lemon; she's profoundly odd--just ask her about the car seat, about which she wrote her application essay, or Hercule Poirot, the fictional detective she has a crush on--but she's also an everygirl with a keen observational eye.

The book is mostly structured as Penelope's picaresque adventures through the clubs and various social groups of Harvard. She sings Aliyah's "Try Again" at chorus tryouts, dresses as a Lost Boy for the literary magazine's Peter Pan-themed annual party, and is somehow sucked into the school's modern reinterpritation of Caligula, in which there are two Caligula's--one male, one female--marionettes, and a scene where people hit pianos with belts. Throughout it all, there are several romantic prospects, including the mysterious Gustav, who is incredibly handsome, although his grandparents were probably Nazis. Guys, I love him. I love him, okay? (view spoiler) The scene where he and Penelope are pulling an all-nighter and writing many Red-Bull inspired paragraphs about the forests of Luxembourg may be my favorite scene, ever.

It is hard to pull off this level of satire without stumbling into parody, but Harrington does it with style to spare. This is another book that I was sad to see end, mostly because I was having so much fun with the jokes and one-liners. There is no statistical way that I won't get giddy about a book that includes the following lines:

Even if pilgrims didn't actually live in this building in particular, it still looked as if they could have. That was all that Penelope could have desired.

She put up her posters, which mainly consisted of one five-foot-wide panorama of Diego Luna doing a split on the set of Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights--which Penelope had decided would be an excellent conversation topic, because that is a movie that everone likes.

He was sort of good-looking too, like a Roman senator who was sensitive and unused to fighting wars.

Ted asked her about Gustav all the time. He seemed to take great triumph in being right about him, like the narrator in Tess of the D’Ubervilles.

And there are about twenty million others--but I probably need to wrap up this review sometime, so I will say this.

My college life turned into something okay, but not perfect. And that's where Harrington decides to leave Penelope, too, and the book feels more universal for it, even if by that time I had fallen so much in love with the character that a part of me wanted more resolution. But I guess college is not about resolution, more about beginnings, and that's what we have here.

In conclusion, this book is great; frothy and fun and keenly smart all at the same time.
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Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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message 1: by Sue (new)

Sue The things we mother-types learn by reading the musings and memories of our young. Sigh. This was a superb review, by the way. And for the record, I skipped my freshman orientation entirely!

Cherry Finally! someone else who seemed to enjoy this book as much as I did!

Here were some of my favourite quotes (that I texted friends because I liked it so much):

"The library is like an infirmary. I felt my jaundice flaring up" - said by Gustav

"Find your inner child and molest it"

The beginning of your review reminded me of sharing a triple at my freshman orientation with my mom and brother (mortifying) but it was a «family orientation» as well.

drea Cherry, I'm so glad you liked it too! The average rating for this one makes me crazy. (And I have never heard of a family orientation before! But that sounds like a whole other level of awkward).

Susan Espourteille I've just started this book, but I love it! I sometimes think negative reviews come from non-critical readers, those who read simply to be entertained. To steal a line from Seinfeld, not that there's anything wrong with that, but for me, there is so much more to reading! Every time I read a review stating that someone hated a book solely because they didn't like or couldn't relate to the characters, I cringe. Do you really only want to read about nice people, or those exactly like you? What's the point of that?

I lived your review, Drea. I believe we think alike as readers! Shall we be friends?

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