I’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.
But, 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.