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Out of place

A socially awkward freshman struggles to fit in with the elite Harvard community

Image Credit: Luis Vazquez/©Gulf News
Gulf News


By Rebecca Harrington,
Virago, 304 pages, £12.99


Rebecca Harrington’s coming-out novel, “Penelope”, is light, uplifting, humorous and greatly addictive. It introduces us to Harvard’s freshman characters who are all trying to fairly survive university life academically and socially with late-night parties, disappointing hook-ups, over-the-top extracurricular activities, friends with or without benefits, the constant pressure of succeeding and the ultimate question: Who am I?

The heroine of this debut book and the “weirdo” of Harvard’s community, Penelope O’Shaunessy — sweet and youthful “of average height and lank hair”, highly passionate for Mores Code, equipped with her “Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights” poster — is ready to mould herself into one of America’s most elite at Harvard.

Problem is, Penelope, although quite “typical and normal in many respects”, has plenty of social deficiencies. “Don’t be too enthusiastic; don’t talk to people who seem to be getting annoyed, and for heaven’s sake, stop playing Tetris on your phone at parties.” Penelope needs this irritating motherly advice, as no amount of preparation will be enough for the people she is about to meet. Penelope is the kind of girl who strolls through much of her life being socially awkward, the type who has so many allergies and walks around with spilt coffee on her shirt.

Sadly, as much as she would love to fit in and succeed, things don’t quite turn out that way. Penelope tends to allow little things to twist her day up, ending up with “vomit in her shoes”, a pet cat in her dorm (she is highly allergic to cats), inappropriate tutors, a kiss that “flapped around her like a dying fish”, and a long-term commitment for a stage production of “Caligula” that began as a small favour for a roommate.

Trying to be true to herself while riding her social tide safely to the shore, Penelope’s romantic life tends to drift between Ted — her first “real friend” who is always in shorts and is stuck in a bad romance with Penelope’s friend Catherine — and Gustav, who is handsome yet peculiar: He is a rich European in suits, has “chin length blond hair”, refers to her as “darling” and prides himself for not being vaccinated.

“Penelope” is Rebecca Harrington’s first book. She is a 26-year-old writer from New York City who has worked as the deputy college editor for the Huffington Post, and has studied History and Literature at Harvard and Journalism at Columbia.

No wonder Harrington manages to create a clear image of the environment for the reader. The author’s style of writing has a film going in our minds — simple, humorous and witty. The use of dialogue is very effective as it allows us to get into the character’s personality. As a young Emirati university student, reading a book such as this gives me a taste of university life — its academic and social aspects — on the other side of the world.


At their best, the characters of Harrington’s novel are three-dimensional and realistic, and I believe the reader will be able to relate to all of them. The character delineation is quite direct and easy to observe and understand as it happens gradually, especially of Penelope, who eventually faces reality but with open arms.

It is a romantic comedy on quite a familiar theme, which has a sense of originality due to its realism. Harrington’s use of mystery and suspense at the start of the novel puts us in the shoes of the character, guiding us to feel the way any freshman would on the first few days of university. The drama that happens is towards the middle of the book, just as it would in reality: Only after you are more engaged in a new society do things start to occur.

The plot is very simple, yet you can get a clear understanding only at the end as there is no direct plot; instead, it is a train of progression. As in real life, you don’t know what will happen next or how you will feel until you have reached the end. The ending was quite disappointing as it was not as expected. In fact, it is quite original that the story does not have a fairy-tale ending — even the reader, who is so caught up, has to face reality.

Penelope’s obsessions provide us with plenty of humour — and evoke sympathy towards her. Even though the well-off, reserved Harvard students seem quite distant, Harrington manages to socially bring them all together and create an exciting community. “Penelope” is a truly funny and charming story.


Nasra Al Rahma was an intern with Gulf News.