Penelope by Rebecca Harrington

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Penelope by Rebecca Harrington

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Zoe Morris
Reviewed by Zoe Morris
Summary: A sweet, if directionless, book about a sweet, if directionless, freshman at Harvard. Funny but it drags a little.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: January 2013
Publisher: Virago
ISBN: 978-1844089260

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Penelope is a socially awkward Harvard student, chronicling her first year at the famed institution. She has a thing for Hercule Poirot (don’t we all?), is allergic to cats, and quite worryingly believes that Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights is one of the best films of all times. She is determined to make friends but finds the options quite limited. Her roommates are either too studious (Emma) or too dubious (Lan) and the boys downstairs are peculiar creatures, to say the least. The dashing, mysterious foreigner Gustav is worth a second glance, but never seems to be where she wants him to be, when she wants him to be there, which is annoying.

This is a massively original, definitely bizarre book that gave great insight into the life of an Ivy Leaguer, at least from one person’s point of view. This book is about life outside the classroom, and it’s really not hard to believe that Penelope is happily and whimsically lost in a Harvard haze of extracurricular clubs, Peter Pan themed parties and marathon Oprah sessions. There are lots of things about College life in the States that I find bizarre, and it’s fun to see a lead in a book have the same response. Penelope has no clue what is going on most of the time, and that’s definitely part of her charm.

Penelope the character is a lot like Penelope the book – quirky but sweet. They have something else in common though: they both go on for a bit longer than their audience would like, be it telling stories about car seats or generally rambling through an academic year. I have to deduct a star because by the end the novelty was wearing off and I just wanted something decent to happen. Because the thing with a book like this is that it’s all about the observations, the coming of age drama, the general being in the moment, rather than a good juicy plot where things go bang, crash, whallop and people die / get kidnapped / run for president / do anything more exciting than eat waffles with a Harvard crest on them.

This is supposed to be a book of Penelope’s misadventures in her freshman year, but that really requires her to have adventures, and that might be a bit of a stretch. Because really this is a book about time passing, and her experiencing life rather than really living it.

It is, however, one I have to recommend. It just has a certain quality, the je ne sais quoi of a special book you like without really understanding why. It’s deliberately funny in places, and perhaps unintentionally so in others, much like Penelope. The laughs kept me reading even when the plot stalled, and Penelope’s way of looking at things was just wonderfully eccentric (Question: Which literary character would you most like to f***? Penelope’s answer: Moby-Dick)

It’s not the sort of book you would necessarily want a sequel to, because what is quintessential in the first instance may not remain so for a follow up, but as a stand alone piece of writing it made a refreshing change from my usual material and I feel all the better for having read it. Recommended.

Thanks go to the publishers for supplying this book.

Harvard Business School Confidential: Secrets of Success by Emily Chan was not written by Penelope. Perhaps if she'd read it, things might have been different. The Accidental Billionaires: Sex, Money, Betrayal and the Founding of Facebook by Ben Mezrich also features more ambitious / ruthless Harvard grads from whom our heroine could learn a lot.

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Buy Penelope by Rebecca Harrington at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Penelope by Rebecca Harrington at Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
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