A little-known fact about Harvard students is that we hate each other
almost as much as the rest of the world hates us—maybe more. When one
of us succeeds, the rest of us go berserk. Public congratulations
barely conceal private disgust, which turns out to be an even poorer
mask for deep, soul-burning jealousy and crippling self-doubt. The
distance from “How could she...” to “Why didn’t I...” to “Undeserving
slut” is, unfortunately, short and easily traveled.
Harvard being Harvard, we have by necessity adjusted; it takes a mighty victory to ruffle our proud feathers. How mighty?
Kaavya Viswanathan’s ’08 recently procured $500,000 two-book
deal and forthcoming DreamWorks contract seem to have qualified. Almost
as soon as her success became public knowledge, Viswanathan became the
target of an inspired private butchering.
She deserves better.
Sure, the book, cumbersomely titled “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed,
Got Wild, and Got a Life,” provides Future Great American Novelists’
jealous bitterness some vindication. “Opal Mehta” is, as my friend Leon
Neyfakh ’07 wrote in Fifteen Minutes last month, “a fairy tale, more or
less,” and a lot of its details are as unconvincing and unfelt as
Even Opal, the novel’s richest character—a type-A high school
senior who reveals early on that Harvard admission has been her destiny
“since birth”—sometimes comes across more like the villain in an
unreasonable and terrifying nightmare than an actual person.
“My room was decorated with Harvard pennants,” she tells us.
“The color scheme at my poorly attended sixteenth birthday party had
been crimson. I went to sleep every night in Harvard shorts and a
Did she mention her subscriptions to 12 different academic journals?
Things only get worse with Opal’s supporting cast. It’s like
Viswanathan has gotten herself permanently stuck in the second scene of
a bad teen movie, the one where the camera pans the high school’s sunny
front lawn, stopping at each clique long enough to let the
skateboarders puff their pot, the jocks flex their muscles, and the
cheerleaders bounce their boobs, and then moving on—except Viswanathan
Thus, we have Jeremy Schacter, a 5’6” member of the Chemistry
Club afflicted not just with “flaming carroty-orange hair” but also “a
bad case of acne”; Devon Schwartz, a jock who tells Opal she can call
him “the Schwartzmeister”; and Jeff Akel, the dreamy, Princeton-bound
student body president whose teeth are “so white they could have been
in a Crest commercial.”
Floating above them all are the “Haute Bitchez,” a trio of
popular girls in matching necklaces whose resemblance to the ruling
clique in “Mean Girls” would be more forgivable if Tina Fey hadn’t
written them so much better.
But before they die of schadenfreude, jealous wannabes should be warned that Viswanathan was crowned queen for a reason.
For one thing, the book is a total pleasure. In Opal’s peers,
the caricatures’ intended humor usually falls flat, but not always. The
Republican Party aspirant Jeff Akel is a hilarious exception. Trying to
spread conservative values across his high school, Akel prints posters
with slogans like “If from drink you get your thrill, take
precaution—write your will” and “All the dangerous drug abusers end up
safe as total losers.” He advocates a three-pronged policy that
includes bringing random locker searches to their upper middle class
suburban high school.
“But that’s a huge privacy violation!” Opal exclaims.
“It’s the only way to weed out the deadbeats,” is Jeff’s reply.
Opal’s parents provide the novel’s funniest moments; in them,
the novel’s premise never gets old. After the admissions dean delivers
his terrible news, giving Opal exactly one semester to acquire the
romance, fun, and parties her resume lacks, Opal’s parents move into
action, developing a three-step plan to convert their square daughter
into a “normal teenager.”
To prepare her for her first kiss, Opal’s mother creates a
color-coded guide, whose first section, “Setting the Scene,” recommends
ensuring that “interactions occur outdoors, but only if it’s raining.
Preferably when he is in a position where you can kiss him upside
“Are you joking?” says Opal.
“What?” her mom replies. “It’s a well-documented move with a very high rate of success.”
Much ink has been wasted wondering whether “Opal Mehta” is
autobiographical. Opal Mehta is surely not Kaavya Viswanathan in
disguise; she is, more likely, Kaavya Viswanathan in Kaavya
Viswanathan’s dreams. Letting us in on the fantasy is Viswanathan’s
gift to us. We get to follow Opal as she transforms overnight from
member of the “Geek Squad” to literally the center of every male’s
“I had never felt attractive or desired before. No other
students had ever noticed me, except to clamor for my help with science
labs. But now...now, people who had never talked to me were coming up
to say hi. As the jocks cruised the halls, they gave me the chin-jut
‘hey’ traditionally reserved for the elect few...I couldn’t stop
Neither can we. Turns out the Cinderella storyline is even more fulfilling in first person.
It takes something more than wish-fulfillment and a funny
premise, however, to win so much attention. Like “Mean Girls,” “Opal
Mehta” is chick lit mixed with satire. Rather than Queen Bees/Wannabes,
however, Opal Mehta represents what might be called the
Pre-Organization Kid, the protozoan phase of the sociological type
first dutifully reduced to caricature by David Brooks in 2001. “The
Organization Kid,” he wrote, is fatally “goal-oriented.”
“An activity—whether it is studying, hitting the treadmill,
drama group, community service, or one of the student groups they found
and join in great numbers—is rarely an end in itself,” Brooks wrote.
“It is a means for self-improvement, résumé-building, and enrichment.
College is just one step on the continual stairway of advancement, and
they are always aware that they must get to the next step (law school,
medical school, whatever) so that they can progress up the steps after
Opal Mehta, just a high school senior, lives her life on this
stairway. Pushed by immigrant parents for whom Harvard admission is a
matter of family pride, Opal has spent her life following a series of
multi-step plans, each with its own abbreviation (“How Opal Will Get
Into Harvard,” HOWGIH, is replaced by “How Opal Will Get a Life,”
HOWGAL) and all of them with one destination: Harvard.
Viswanathan is hardly the first to point out that such
children exist. After David Brooks coined the term, former Dean of the
College Harry R. Lewis ’68 wrote his “Slow Down” letter as an attack on
the same kind of thing. The popular press caught on almost as quickly,
overworking the “College Admissions Game Getting Harder to Win” angle
until phrases like “extracurricular activities” and “unweighted grade
point average” became household terms.
In its nonstop coverage, however, the popular press has
continually missed one crucial angle: the perspective of the
organization kids themselves. This is Viswanathan’s contribution.
Though her pop sociology is perhaps even less subtle than the
professional caricature artist Tom Wolfe, “Opal Mehta” nevertheless far
outperforms “I Am Charlotte Simmons” in the department of insight.
Wolfe set out to solve the paradox of the modern Ivy League
overachiever: Why do the country’s top performers cap weekdays of hard
work with nights of binge drinking and commitment-free physical
intimacy? But he failed to do much more than solidify the term
“hook-up” in pop parlance. Viswanathan actually offers an answer: the
college generation’s reckless profligacy, she suggests, is the result
of the same goal-directed purposefulness that has produced its academic
Like David Brooks’ Organization Kid, Opal Mehta is a
professional student. Over the course of the book, she also becomes a
professional partier; “fun” is just one more category to check off her
resume. To learn to dance, Opal watches a music video by Beyonce with a
pen and paper in hand: “Swivel hips left, then forward,” she writes for
the purposes of later memorization. To learn to have fun, she studies
Like Brooks and Lewis, Viswanathan is not a fan of this
approach. “You can put the girl in couture,” one of the Haute Bitchez
tells Opal, “but you can’t put the couture in the girl.” Similarly, put
the automaton in Manolo Blahniks and all you get is an automaton in
Viswanathan’s insights are good, and her ability to broadcast
them to an international audience of Organization Kids might have been
a blessing. Unfortunately, though, “Opal Mehta” squanders the
opportunity to debunk the mightily popular myth that, as Opal says
early in the book, “Harvard just about equals success in the world”—and
nothing is more important than success.
Against the possibility of a world of walking-dead overachievers, Viswanathan’s recommended cure turns out to be: more Harvard.
The college ultimately fulfills all of Viswanathan’s
heaven-on-Earth dreams. Viswanathan’s Harvard is a place where no one
has to pretend, where competition dies, passion lives, and “social
life” is something richer than binge-drinking on tabletops.
Viswanathan had a chance to debunk the Harvard myth for good.
Instead, she perpetuates it. Given the market power with which
DreamWorks seems to have endowed her, that is truly unfortunate. The
overachieving girls and boys who flock to theaters to watch “Opal
Mehta: The Movie” might learn that there is more to life than can be
contained in a resume, but they’ll still leave the theaters convinced
that an easy pill called Harvard exists. Finally, they’ll face a
Catch-22: play into the system in order to get out of it, or reject the
system only to remain trapped inside it.
And unfortunately—as the press keeps telling us—just like not
everyone can publish a novel before the age of 20, not everyone can get
—Reviewer Elizabeth W. Green can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life
By Kaavya Viswanathan ’08
Little, Brown & Co.