Old School

First, a brief questionnaire to assess your eligibility for this book:

1. Do you have a wickedly dry and deadpan sense of humour?

2. Do you appreciate gentle, even whimsical satire?

3. Are you fond of British novels from the 1930s?

If the answer to two or more of the above questions is yes, then congratulations, you may proceed to the review!

Because seriously, this is a novel that will only work with the right sense of humour. If you like to take your fiction at face value, if you enjoy melodrama and gutsy emotions, then you will be left bewildered and somewhat out of sorts. If, like me, you have a deep fondness for slightly daft, old-fashioned comedy set in grand educational insitutions, you will love it.

penelopeThe eponymous heroine of Rebecca Harrington’s debut novel is a freshman embarking on her Harvard career. She leaves behind her (as far behind as she can force her to go) a mother who is full of good advice about meeting people, being normal and eschewing her favourite topics, like confessing she used a car seat until fourth grade. For Penelope is an original, an awkward young woman who does not fit neatly into the ideology of the young, though she wishes fervently that she could. Penelope is committed to the path of least resistance, and it’s wishful thinking that leads her to believe it will eventually join up with the superhighway of life. She’s a nice person! She means no harm, ever! And yet she is disappointed to discover that ready agreement with everything that is said to her does not win her friends and influence people.

The people around her, however, are not exactly easy to win over. Her room mates are Emma, a rocket-fuelled over-achiever with a starry social life and a medal in emotional manipulation, and Lan, a genius misogenist who only likes her illegally-kept cat, Raymond (Penelope is allergic). Upstairs lives Ted, an eager to please young man with a disconcerting fringe that makes him look (not in a good way) like a Roman centurion. It’s clear that Ted does like Penelope, but that Penelope instinctually senses they are too alike as uncertain misfits ever to risk being a couple. Penelope’s desires all tend towards the enigmatic Gustav, a student whose worldliness and impeccable pedigree impress her as much as his three-piece suits and his complete indifference to his studies. This makes him stand out in a community where exams are the principle topic of conversation: ‘Homework was like a North Star that everything turned to.’

If you’ve ever been to a sightly hysterical institute of learning, and failed to make friends or fit in, then there is much that will be utterly familiar about this novel. Harrington gently pokes fun at the obsessive-compulsive traits of dedicated students and their grandiose ambitions and opinions, whilst at the same time tapping in to the insecurities of teenagers the world over – the flailing about in search of an identity that constitutes socialising at that age. Harvard is mercilessly satirised, with the constant refrain rising from its ranks that here’s where you’ll have ‘the best conversations of your life’, which are of course never in evidence, and its lacklustre traditions, like the Harvard-Yale football game: ‘The crowd was generally old and clad in fur coats. There were current students at the game too, but they seemed to be a constantly fluctuating, less vocal maroon number, like a small, sad, consumptive sister to the robust alumni of yore.’

Not a lot happens. Penelope scrapes through her classes, fails to make lasting friends, gets involved in a hilariously turgid drama production and does not find true love. But it ain’t what she does, it’s the say that she does it. The narrative is littered with wonderful observations, like Penelope’s experience of the ‘feeling in her stomach that occurs when you realise that your time enjoying composure is rapidly coming to a close’, or the description of the football stadium that was ‘a late Victorian replica of the Coliseum that was both imposing and wholly devoid of irony.’ And I would have loved the book for one of the best lines I’ve read in a long time, when Penelope turns an ardent Gustav away from her door: ‘Suddenly Penelope could not remember why exactly she had said good-bye to him at the door. It had something to do with fear, but she hoped it would be mistaken for strategy.’

I thought this was a delight, a charming romp with an ascerbic edge and a taste for the absurd, and if that sounds a bit heterogeneous, well you’re right. Penelope does bring together the old and the new, the funny and the dreadful, the ditzy and the sharp. And if that’s your sense of humour, sit back and enjoy.

And if you enjoyed this book, you might want to consider a couple of other possibilities from Shiny New Books:

The Following Girls by Louise Levene, a brilliant novel set in a girls’ school in the 70s

The Tell-Tale Heart by Jill Dawson, in which a womanising professor is given a beating heart transplant with strange consequences. (I’ll be reviewing this myself in a few days time.)


25 thoughts on “Old School

  1. Oh my gosh–I think this is the first time I’ve encountered anyone who loves this book as much as I do! I completely agree with you–you definitely need to have a very particular sense of humor to “get” this book.
    I loved everything about “Penelope”, including the dialogue–which is a turn-off for many reviewers. One common complaint seems to be “Why doesn’t anyone in this book use contractions when they talk!” To me, the dialogue fit perfectly with the tone of the book and it rang true to me.
    I haven’t heard of “The Following Girls” but will be checking it out.

    • Oh I am just as glad that you commented! It does seem to be a book people either love or hate, and I really did love it. I thought that dialogue was SO funny. There are books that aren’t real but are true (like this one) and books that are real but aren’t true (like romance, for instance). I thought this was truthful in a weird but insightful way!

  2. Oh, dear! I was thinking of reading ‘The Following Girls’ but I hated ‘Penelope’. It was a real contender for my worst book of the year in 2013. I clearly don’t pass the test.

    • Oh sense of humour is such an odd and unpredictable thing. I found this funny, but then someone like Terry Pratchett, whom most people seem to agree is hilarious, leaves me cold. It’s definitely a marmite book. But the only thing it has in common with The Following Girls is the educational context. Susan further down in the comments felt the same as you about Penelope but loved the Louise Levene, so I don’t think you should pass it up.

    • Oh I would move on to other things. It’s definitely a marmite book and because it’s the style that grates on some readers, getting further on in the story won’t help. Never mind – you will give much needed reassurance to Alex that The Following Girls is still very much worth trying!

  3. Is this like Barbara Pym?  I thought the lines you picked out were very funny.

    I like your Shiny New Book links at the bottom of the review?  Very good way to point out similar novels.


    • I thought it had a lot of funny lines, and yes, it is like Barbara Pym, only she is much more of a realist. This is most like Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm, if you know that book. I’m so glad you like the links – I think I’ll do that on all my review posts now.

    • Ah, well good news, I think this is the UK cover and the US one is very different, so judge away, it doesn’t matter. I’d love to know what you think of it!

    • It’s definitely a book that requires a certain mood and it is all about whether it tickles your funny bone or not. Read a few pages in the bookshop/library – you’ll soon know if it works for you or not. And I’d love to know what you think if you do read it!

  4. Pingback: Best Books of 2014 | Tales from the Reading Room

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