My motivation for picking up Rebecca Harrington’s Penelope was largely limited to “a girl named Penelope goes to college in Boston? Whee!” Which just goes to show, I am not particularly discerning. When you go into a read with that kind of ‘I’ll try anything once’ attitude, either you or the novel will suffer for it. And unfortunately for Harrington, I’m the one that’s suffering. Spoilers, if you can call them that, to follow…
Penelope is the story of Penelope O’Shaunessy, a bright but dull girl (intellectually then personally, in that order), and her freshman year at Harvard. She’s not unintelligent (she got into Harvard), but she seems unmotivated and lackluster. She’s socially awkward and kind of a pushover, she doesn’t seem to understand most social conventions, and her most often uttered phrase is “Oh, OK.” That’s not to say that she’s completely uninteresting – she can manage to pull actual conversations out of nowhere, is vaguely funny, and people seem to like her, in that ‘I don’t quite understand her, but it’s entertaining’ sort of way. This works out twice for her, once with pseudo-love interest Ted and once with slightly more of a love interest Gustav. Penelope’s roommates, however (the antisocial and possibly crazy Lan and the overambitious but average-acheiving Emma), both seem to hate her in their own way. It’s unclear if they’re inconsiderate roommates or just inconsiderate, since we never really see them interact with anyone without Penelope there, or even if the living situation would be easier if Penelope stood up for herself. But Lan shuts herself in her room with unclear intent, and gets a cat despite Penelope’s allergy protestations, ostensibly to train it. And Emma redecorates their shared double in such a way that most of Penelope’s things get relocated to the common room. Meanwhile, Penelope’s only other ‘friend’ is Catherine, who seems willing to befriend Penelope because it will get her closer to the thoroughly uninteresting Ted, who has a crush on Penelope but ends up dating Catherine for something like eight months, because he seems to be just as wishy-washy as Penelope, only more drunk. He has the moral constitution of a dead fish and he kisses like one, too.
The thing that is most frustrating about Penelope is that most of her uncomfortable situations would probably be easily resolved with a sarcastic comment. Or at least SOME kind of comment. When roommate Emma is complaining about all of her problems with next year’s housing situation and how they have too many spaces in their blocking group (I don’t know, it’s a Harvard thing, it was explained to me but I found I didn’t care), and Penelope chooses that moment to ask if Emma wants to live with her next year, Emma responds with some vague response in the vein of, ‘Oh, remember how I just said there was space, I misremembered, there probably isn’t.’ Penelope could point out the very obvious flaw in that, and Emma’s lack of subtlety in her backtracking, but she defers. Whether she doesn’t realize this is what Emma is doing or she just doesn’t want to fight it is unclear. But this is the case for almost all of her situations. As a possible examination of Asperger’s, this would be very interesting, but the subject is only broached once, in Penelope’s very last conversation with Lan (the last conversation of the book), and is unsatisfying:
“Penelope, do you have a mental illness?” asked Lan.
“No,” said Penelope.
So if Penelope does not have any sort of condition, it means she is just awkward, painfully so, and exhibits no growth whatsoever over the course of her freshman year. If this novel doesn’t exist as a satire, then there is sincerely no reason for it to exist at all, because it is not about anything.
Penelope doesn’t learn (possibly literally, any mentions of her going to class seem to involve her ignoring the teacher or not taking notes) and she doesn’t grow. She lets things happen to her, again and again. The most interesting things about her are her crush on Hercule Poirot and her sub-romance with the intriguing Harvard legacy-slash-possible international playboy Gustav, but even that is limited to making out on his bed and then sleeping in her pants (which she never takes off), and while this happens for several weeks, we only see it the once and it’s not particularly compelling. Gustav is a better kisser than Ted, but we get no indication that Penelope has lust or desire for him. I don’t want it to be some saucy romance novel, really; I want Penelope to have passion. About anything. I’m not picky. I understand that it’s supposed to be a satirical bildungsroman, but satire doesn’t mean that nothing happens. So I come away frustrated.
I think this is the sort of book that is polarizing (and the Goodreads reviews back this theory up), its readers split into two camps of those who ‘got’ it (and love it), and those who don’t. I don’t know where on that scale I’d fall. I ‘got’ it, as much as it could be ‘gotten’, and I actually didn’t hate it. I thought some of the language was lovely, even quite funny at times, and a lot of the characters had potential. But they, like the book, didn’t meet their potential. I didn’t hate it, I just wanted more. More time, more direction, more something. I wanted to finish it with more than the sense of, ‘That was a book I’ve read.’ Which, actually, is how I feel Penelope herself would walk away from it. No interest, no passion, just the fact that it something which has happened to her.