Penelope by Rebecca Harrington

published 2012  chapters 1 & 2

A handsome man with chin-length blond hair was walking past… wearing a three-piece linen suit and laughing into a cell phone, like the regent of a tiny, unpronounceable European principality. Penelope wondered if he was drifting toward the registration desk. It seemed as though he was going to.

Penelope thought about the man in the rumpled linen suit. It was possible he lived in her dorm – but she doubted it…

The trees did not move, the sun was too yellow. The Yard looked stately if remote. No one was playing touch football on it, that was for sure. Maybe the man wearing the rumpled linen suit at registration had actually been a mirage. He looked like what she had thought Harvard men were going to look like before she went here, although now that she was here, none of the students looked remotely like that.

observations: Doing the rounds of the internet right now is a truly hilarious aticle about living like Gwyneth Paltrow (pointed out to me by my friend Riona MacNamara). It didn’t at all make me want to read the GP book It’s All Good, but I immediately downloaded this novel by the article’s author, Rebecca Harrington.

Penelope is new to Harvard, socially inept, a naïve provincial girl who seems to know nothing about the place (it is hard to imagine how she got in) - the book follows her first year. She is completely deadpan, something of an empty vessel. You have to just go with this; she is not going to change and develop over the year, and neither are the horrible people around her. The style is odd, very flat and almost childish. The effect is weird but obviously deliberate: this book is satirical and not meant to be taken seriously, nor to be judged on its fine writing. But it is very very funny, laugh-out loud funny. (Though not for everyone – the reviews online are evenly divided, and many people find the style distancing and boring.)

The Paltrow article, and others by Harrington, seem to be written entirely in the persona of Penelope. But is the author herself quite different? There are spectacularly off-putting acknowledgements at the end of the book. Penelope might be a hopeless person, but you sincerely doubt that she would ever write ‘He is the best!...I feel so lucky to have met her…Thank you so much for being there for me every step of the way. What would I do without all of you in my life?’

She uses the words gamut, amuck and throngs wrongly in the book, similarly the word annals in the article… strange? Deliberate? How about those wonderful editors she’s busy thanking?

BUT – any book this funny gets a free pass. It is brilliant, and I would read another book by her in a minute.

Links on the blog: More undergraduate stories here and here and here.

The picture is from an old fashion magazine and shows designer Katherine Hamnett and a male model.


  1. Moira - Well, I already like the setting. And sometimes that deadpan sort of shallow-by-design story can be absolutely hilarious. I'm glad you you enjoyed this.


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