It’s been a year since I read Kaavya Viswanathan’s “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life.” I still have my review copy, a.k.a my retirement plan–I’m hoping it’ll fetch me a chunk of cash on Ebay in a few decades… Here’s my review of the book (published before the plagiarism scandal struck) from the Asian Review of Books .
KAAVYA VISWANATHAN, the author of HOW OPAL MEHTA GOT KISSED, GOT WILD AND GOT A LIFE is nineteen; she began writing this book at seventeen.
I’m intrigued by young authors. Part of the intrigue is pure envy at the success of those so young, but much stems from curiosity. I left high school when the iPod was but a glint in Steve Jobs’s keen eye, and the world of present-day teens is less familiar to me than, say, the Hobbits’ Shire. So, just what are seventeen-year-olds thinking and doing nowadays?
Opal Mehta has but one ambition — to get a Harvard education, towards which she and her parents have been planning since her birth. Their strategy HOWGIH (“How Opal Will Get Into Harvard”) covers every possible admission requirement. At seventeen, Opal has a flawless academic record, she’s performed at Carnegie Hall, she volunteers at the local hospital, and she even took welding classes to appear well-rounded. Opal’s interview with Harvard’s dean of admissions, however, exposes a hitherto unsuspected character flaw in our applicant — Opal doesn’t know how to have fun.
Opal gets another shot at admission — if she can prove she’s more than the sum of her grades. So the Mehtas gamely set about planning HOWGAL (“How Opal Will Get A Life”), a money-is-no-object strategy guaranteeing social cachet to its follower. HOWGAL incorporates slang flash-cards, reconnaissance missions to the mall, binders with neatly indexed topics including “Curling Irons, How to Use” and “Mixing Music, the Art of,” and endless revisions of teen magazines and television shows — all to find out what’s “cool”.
“Cool”, it turns out, is defined by brands. This story takes brands very seriously — and how could it not, for Harvard is, of course, the biggest brand of them all. This (hopelessly outdated) reviewer has thus learnt that lip gloss comes with names like Kiss Me, Then Try To Leave, that haircuts from a gentleman named Frederic Fekkai are extremely desirable, and that jeans aren’t just bought off the rack during a sale at the Gap, but have designer tags such as Seven, Habitual, Earl Jeans, and, rather improbably, Citizens of Humanity.
HOWGAL works; Harriet the Spy meets the Shopaholic in a New Jersey suburb as the made-over Opal becomes popular, especially with the boys in her class. And rather predictably (for this is a Miraculous Transformation story, after all), a crisis forces Opal to examine what she really wants, who she really is, and who her real friends are.
It’s all terribly unrealistic, and not just because the Indian-American community Opal belongs to is portrayed as a kind of “super-model” minority — the parents tend to be surgeons, and their offspring slide out of their mothers’ wombs onto the honor roll. But the shortcomings of this book, for the most part, are the shortcomings of its genre (chick-lit for the teenage soul); it would be mean-spirited to single out Viswanathan for criticism. HOW OPAL MEHTA GOT KISSED, GOT WILD AND GOT A LIFE is a raspberry sorbet of a novel — colorful, crisp, rather insubstantial but oh-so-delicious, to be devoured in one gulp in an afternoon at the beach.
Teenage writers aren’t read for their complex plots or the quality of their prose — such skills usually improve with age. We read young authors to know what their experiences are, and what’s going on in a secretive society sealed to those outside that age. I’m therefore rooting for Viswanathan — hers is a book is set squarely in the author’s world, a book that works because of, rather than despite, the author’s lack of years.Kaavya Viswanathan got a $500,000 advance, got a two-book deal, got into Harvard, and now, it turns out she writes a delectable tale.
As if I needed more reason for envy.
My envy seems singularly misplaced now, but when I wrote the piece–ah well! She seemed to have the world at her Manolos…