Penelope ~ Rebecca Harrington: or Two Nations Divided by a Common Language

9781844089260I’d been seeing Rebecca Harrington’s first novel advertised on all the major book review sites and, as I really rather liked the premise, (Penelope O’Shaughnessy’s first year at Harvard) when it faced me on the library shelf last week I brought it home for a weekend read.  I’m a sucker for campus novels, having spent such a large proportion of my working life on various university sites, and even though it’s a long time since I was a student I thought I would be able to empathise. Clearly, I was deluding myself.

To begin with I’m afraid I have to say that I don’t think this is a particularly good book, in fact, if I’m honest I think it’s rather worse than that.  It rambles around with very little sense of shape or pace and I found the writing style irritating.  It’s possible, therefore that my concerns about the quality of the novel transferred themselves to the depiction of the students but, if Harrington’s representation of Harvard freshmen is accurate, then I quake for the future of the USA.  Is there that much alcohol in the entire world?  And, given how much of it most of the students seem to have imbibed, will any of them live even to graduation?

So, what kept me reading, because I don’t believe in pushing myself through a book just for the sake of finishing it?  Well, I went on because in one respect it was a real education.  The source of the remark that the US and the UK are two nations divided by a common language is hard to pin down, but the truth of it is manifest in this book.  At one point Penelope, floored by some of the terminology used by her upper-class roommate, reflects that:

[she] had had to look up almost everything she said on Wikipedia, which was exhausting.

I know just how she felt.  I had to sit there with my iPad close by so that every two or three pages I could look up a word or phrase it was assumed I would understand simply in order that I could follow what was going on.  I never thought I’d say it, but thank goodness for Wikipedia.

But, like Penelope, I learnt something.  So, I now know what a U-Haul truck is and, having looked up their menus, I am definitely envious of all those Au Bon Pain outlets.  I am relieved to discover that when you bus your tray you don’t take it with you on public transport but put it on a conveyor belt, presumably to be taken off to the kitchen so your crockery can be washed.  (This, I suppose, is where the term busboy comes from, which is something else that has always puzzled me.)  Sam’s Club sounds as if it might be the equivalent of our Macro stores, where, in order to gain access,  you have to have a card to prove you’re a wholesaler and, were it on sale in the UK, Pabst Blue Ribbon would probably be as responsible for multiple hangovers here as it is on the Harvard campus.

imagesBut, the thing that really had me goggling was the hacky sack. Now, as far as I can see, the concept behind this is pretty much universal.  We would call it ‘keepy-uppy’: that is, the apparently irresistible urge felt by teenage boys to keep a ball in the air and prevent it from touching the ground for as long as possible.  However, British boys would use a ball.  I mean a real ball.  When I ventured on to Wikipedia and saw all those pictures of crocheted balls I have to admit I balked.  If I took one of those into a school playground or onto a university campus and suggested that our lads might like to play with it I would probably be taking my life into my hands.  But, far be it from me to criticise another country’s hallowed traditions.  I know most of you are still wondering what on earth all the fuss is where cricket is concerned.  If you want to play with a crocheted ball that’s fine by me.

So, I read to the end of Penelope, treating the experience as a learning opportunity and indeed, I came away feeling that I had probably learnt considerably more than any of the fictional students appeared to have done.  But, please, if any of my American blogging friends have read the book, reassure me that the picture painted of a US campus is not an accurate one.  We recruit a lot of our postgraduates from the States and I have to say I’m beginning to get rather worried.


10 thoughts on “Penelope ~ Rebecca Harrington: or Two Nations Divided by a Common Language

  1. Oh dear. Drinking on college campuses is a big problem here but not everyone does it. In fact, most people don’t drink or if they do, drink responsibly. That said, alcohol and alcohol fueled parties are easy to come by. U-hauls are a moving day godsend. Pretty affordable and they come in different sizes for cramming all your stuff into. I’ve never been to Sam’s Club because I don’t need supersized packages of food and toilet paper. My parents seem to think they do though and go all the time. It’s just the two of them and they could feed an army for a month if they had to. Sadly, Au Bon Pain is not vegan friendly so I just get to sniff the sweet bready air when I walk by one on my way to work in the morning. I don’t drink so I have never had Pabst Blue Ribbon but used to be the beer of choice of working class midwesterners when it was brewed and bottled in my neighboring state of Wisconsin. As for hacky sack, this game has been around for a really long time and I have even played it. However, I have never seen anyone use a crocheted ball! They are usually little round bean bags slightly bigger than a golf ball covered in brown leather or synthetic leather fabric.

    1. Well, that’s a relief, Stefanie. Those crocheted monstrosities look like something the Sheep from ‘Alice Through the Looking-Glass’ might have conjured up. I’m surprised I haven’t been having nightmares about them:)

      1. Unlike Stefanie, I’ve only ever seen hacky sack played with the kinds of balls in the picture. Perhaps it’s a regional thing. And it’s just the outside that’s crocheted. It’s a little bean bag inside.

      2. It does get filthy, I’m sure, but in my experience hacky-sack is mostly the province of high school and college boys, and they don’t much care.

  2. Now you know why there are actually people who translate UK-US books!

    I hate to disappoint you, but I don’t think any one who hasn’t lived here can truly imagine how much people drink at college (UK: university), or often high school for that matter. But it’s a much bigger problem when people are away from home for the first time. I mostly outgrew it after my freshman year, but I think that’s only because I had started early at prep (UK: public) school and got tired of it quicker. It may be different in the Midwest, where Stefanie is, but I don’t know any university on the East Coast where drinking hasn’t been a pretty large issue from at least the 70s on.

    Back in the 80s, the drinking age was tied to highway funding so that most states would raise the drinking age from 18 to 21 (the idea being that a higher age would perhaps keep alcohol out of the hands of younger drivers still in high school), which happened gradually until most states were at 21 by the end of the decade. Unfortunately, I don’t think this change has really prevented anything and, in my opinion, may only exacerbate the situation because people don’t learn to drink responsibly at home. Sadly, I don’t think the circumstances (in terms of excessive alcohol consumption) surrounding the Steubenville rape case are unusual here.

    1. I had to look up the Steubenville case, Sly Wit, which may comfort you somewhat in as much as it hasn’t become international news. Unfortunately we have too many rape cases of our own to concentrate on. I don’t want to give the impression that there is no drinking on UK campuses. That would be very far from the truth. But I genuinely don’t think it is as extreme nor as ubiquitous as Harrington portrays it in this novel. It may be that because I worked mostly with students on vocational courses who had to be in work placements that couldn’t be dodged, rather than classes, I met with it less than might otherwise have been the case. I suppose because I would have given my eye teeth for a University education (I did all three of my degrees part time while I was working full time) I feel like shaking them for the chance they’re throwing away.

      1. Sorry to make you read the details of that if you’ve been spared, it’s pretty depressing. I would say that the drinking often can be extreme and is ubiquitous, but more in the sense that Stefanie mentioned–there are parties and excessive drinking everywhere, but that it is certainly a choice whether you participate. At some places I’ve taught, such as NYU, I’d say there was a higher percentage of people that didn’t participate (given that the city has plenty of distractions, and there’s no real campus to speak of, as well as a higher %age of foreign students and local students, whom I usually found to be more conscientious about their education dollars). But at schools with real campuses, I think it’s harder to avoid.

  3. I read Tom Wolfe’s I am Charlotte Simmons a few years ago, set apparently at Duke University, and alcohol was a big feature of that campus too. I find it horrific and scary the power it wields over the adolescent mind. When I once had to get involved with induction days with the unenviable task of persuading the JCR that they DID want to do study skills alongside having ‘fun’, the number of alcohol-based events was scary. ‘Don’t you want to have some tea parties? Or introductions to yoga or meditation?’ I asked this boy and he said the committee felt they had to compete with the London universities and what they offered. He’d never even considered any non-alcoholic events. I tried to point out that if such events set the tone for university studies, most people were going to feel completely inadequate in their social lives from then on. Ach the young; I loved them but they really did not manage to think their way all around situations sometimes. Generally our students had way too much work to do to go out drinking every night. Noses to the grindstones was useful in some ways. Vocational courses are excellent too, for focusing the mind.

    1. It’s interesting that you introduce the notion of competition, LitLove, because I think that probably has a lot to do with it, or at least the idea that you cannot be seen to be ‘falling behind’ your contemporaries in the alcohol race. What worries me is that it doesn’t just set the tone for University life but in some cases for the life thereafter as well.

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