Penelope by Rebecca Harrington

It seems that only 595* of the 2422 people who reviewed Penelope by Rebecca Harrington on Goodreads got the joke.

Incoming freshman, Penelope O’Shaunessy, is navigating life at Harvard – finding friends, managing her classes and getting along with roommates. But this is not an ordinary campus story. Penelope is somewhat different –

“Penelope’s summer was much like any other summer. She worked at an ice cream shop. She went to the beach. Occasionally, she pretended she was Julia Child and talked in a funny voice while cooking beef bouillon.”

Penelope is a parody of campus-lit – all the tropes and stereotypes we associate with university: frat parties, dorms, cliques, navel-gazing classes focused on ludicrous topics – are the subject of Harrington’s very dry, sharp humour. She pokes fun at campus life but never in a nasty or demeaning way, which is why this book is so fabulous.

“‘Bloated? I don’t think we can start just throwing a word like that around without problemtizing it a little,’ scoffed a tiny boy in a herringbone vest. He was especially contrary when he wore the vest, Penelope had noticed.”

There are also mentions of smoking jackets, pants with lobsters embroidered on them, cardigans and pocket-watches. Glorious stuff.

The guts of the story is focused on Penelope’s attempts to make friends. Despite her social awkwardness (not to be mistaken for being clumsy of klutzy, as ‘awkward’ girls are often portrayed), she becomes a reluctant participant in an ‘existential’ theatre production of Caligula, and meets campus-romeo, Gustav, who is the image of pompous-wankery. While Penelope is busy mooning over Gustav, she misses genuine signals from others, particularly a guy named Ted –

“‘That sounds great,’ said Ted. ‘Penelope, do you still have that TV?’
‘Yes,’ said Penelope. Was he inviting her? She would make it clear that she was not attending. ‘You can use it. I think there is a parade in Boston that I wanted to go to. ‘

Everyone, please note that I will be using the ‘I think there is a parade in Boston that I wanted to go to’ excuse forthwith.

Actually, Penelope and I share similar feelings on many things –

“…the thing was, Penelope hated whimsy as she hated hell.”


“Penelope smiled at him. She always felt bad for men in necklaces.”


“‘Wow,’ said Penelope. ‘That is awesome. It is hard to make mix tapes. I always have trouble, you know, because what do you really put after Ace of Base?'”

Yes. Yes. And fuck yes.

Equally, Penelope’s idle thoughts follow the same patterns as mine on any given day –

“At 6.30 in the morning, Penelope finished her final graph. She had had three Red Bulls over the course of the night and she was wearing the worst bra possible…The computer lab was, perhaps, the site of the most continuous self-recriminations Penelope had ever endured. She decided to take a brief nap.”

This book is a gem. It’s funny and truthful and I truly hope that Harrington ignores the opinion of 1827 people and writes another novel – I for one will block out time in the diary to read it (and if there’s a clash, I’ll tell people I have a parade in Boston to go to).

4.5/5 Funniest book I’ve read in years.

Check out the cover of Penelope. Obviously the only thing to have with this book is waffles. I don’t really do sweet breakfasts (and I consider waffles a breakfast food) but if I was to eat waffles, I’d need plenty of cinnamon and butter – like these from Recipe Girl.

*those people who rated the book four or five stars.


23 responses

    • Really very funny – still not sure how some readers thought it was in any way serious.

      Re Goodreads – I love it but it is a bit of a time-suck – very easy to start reading people’s reviews of books and then suddenly eleventy hundred hours have passed.

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