Penelope is one of those novels that’s more than entertaining enough to take to the beach but can still dazzle you with its wit and razor-sharp intelligence. In person, Rebecca Harrington, the 26-year-old author who wrote Penelope, conveys a similar mix of bubbliness and literary geekiness: Our conversation over craft beers and truffle fries covered everything from Kristen Stewart’s messy personal life to contemporary adaptions of classical Greek theater.
Harrington doesn’t appear to have much in common with her titular character. In the novel, Penelope O’Shaunessy arrives at Harvard completely blindsided by the pretentiousness and bizarre social behaviors of her classmates. Like a cypher, she shows up to every student event she’s invited to, quietly (and hilariously) observing the goings-on — a ludicrous student production of Caligula, endless pre-gaming sessions for parties that never happen, a literary magazine meeting that will have you laughing out loud — while engaging her surroundings with mostly one-word responses like, “Yeah” and “Sure.” “She thinks that if she’s agreeable, she’ll somehow be seamlessly accepted into some kind of group,” says Harrington of her deadpan, painfully awkward heroine. “But really, nobody seems to care.”
While many of the observations and details are based in reality — Harrington is a 2008 Harvard graduate herself — Penelope was inspired more by the tradition of British campus novels than her own experiences. “I was reading a lot of novels set at Oxford and Cambridge, like Lucky Jim and Decline and Fall, which viewed education less as this kind of transcendentalist, transformative experience and more as a series of absurd accidents happening over and over again,” says Harrington. “I decided to transpose that form and see if I can do it in an American setting. … Sometimes college can be more absurd and alienating than it is transformative and really fun. In America, you have these models of college where it’s either like Animal House or Good Will Hunting.”
At Harvard, Harrington felt a bit like a fish out of water as well, at least initially. She grew up in Rhode Island, where she attended a Quaker school where the kids weren’t particularly intense about achievement. Harvard wasn’t as much of a culture shock for Harrington as it is for Penelope, but certain aspects of collegiate life caught Harrington off guard. “There was always a part of me that was kind of like, ‘What? Really?” she says with a laugh. Penelope comes across plenty of Really?-inducing Harvard characters, including Gustav, an “international playboy” of sorts who fashions his entire persona after some kind of Edwardian dandy, or Emma, her absurdly high-strung, WASPy roommate who severely lacks self-awareness. Harrington views the Harvard of Penelope as “idiomatically realistic,” but she certainly didn’t set out to critique the institution. At the same time, she didn’t want to disguise Harvard as a fictional school. “Harvard is so ripe for satire that if you set a book in a place like it, it will absolutely lose something!”
Harrington began writing her novel at the end of her time at Harvard but started writing it in earnest while enrolled at Columbia Journalism Schoool in 2010. Fittingly, her Brit-inspired novel first grabbed a literary agent’s attention in the U.K. before it made its way stateside, where it was edited by Knopf’s Jenny Jackson, who has edited well-received literary novels by other young female authors like Jennifer Close and J. Courtney Sullivan. Mention of being in such company actually makes Harrington bounce in her seat, and questions of “chick-lit” or the pinkness of Penelope‘s cover don’t concern her in the least. “Those debates seem to come with this idea that women aren’t serious readers, and I don’t feel that way,” she says. “They could do anything to market Penelope to women and it wouldn’t bother me.”
The novel ends after Penelope’s first year, but I was left wondering what would happen in the rest of her Harvard career. “I think it went okay, but it’ll always be hard for her to communicate any sense of self to another person,” she says. “She probably won’t end up totally alone. But as with most campus novels, and considering other things in life, the stakes are comparatively low.”
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