‘Mehta’-Morphosis

For a brief, shining moment, she was a star. Now, can she be just another junior?

Although her plagiarism-plagued novel “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life” no longer graces bookstore window displays, life goes on for Kaavya Viswanathan ’08. The on-the-go life of an ambitious Harvard student, that is.

During the summer, Viswanathan will be working at 85 Broads, a network founded in 1999 for female Goldman Sachs employees. The organization has since expanded to reach out to women attending business school and college.

And when she returns to school in the fall, she will be interacting with freshmen as a peer advising fellow. Viswanathan was selected as one of about 190 fellows out of nearly 500 applicants, and she attended a dinner at Fenway Park’s EMC Club last month for fellows, according to several attendees. The fellows will reach out to freshmen over the summer and on move-in day, and they will assume some of the responsibilities of the former Prefect Program.

In the meantime, Viswanathan has her internship to keep her busy.

“I am happy to confirm that Kaavya will be working with the 85 Broads team in Greenwich, CT. on a number of exciting projects,” Janet Hanson, the founder of 85 Broads, writes in an e-mail, adding that Viswanathan will be working on “a variety of projects that have a global scope” during her time there.

Last summer, 85 Broads had 12 interns in Greenwich, according to Hanson.

“Kaavya is incredibly talented and has many gifts that we will make considerable use of,” Hanson writes. “I am thrilled that she’s joining the team.”

Viswanathan had originally planned to intern at the investment bank Lehman Brothers, according to The Record, a Bergen County, N.J. newspaper. A Lehman Brothers spokesman would not comment on whether Viswanathan voluntarily relinquished her investment-bank internship or whether the bank rescinded its offer.

Yet, even as Viswanathan moves on, the events of April 2006—highlighted by the celebrated release and then ignominious withdrawal of her debut novel—still cast a long shadow.

“Opal Mehta,” which hit shelves on April 4, attracted international media attention after publishing giant Little, Brown reportedly gave the Harvard sophomore a $500,000 two-book contract—a sum unprecedented for such a young author. Several major media outlets—including USA Today, The New York Times, and the Associated Press—published articles lauding Viswanathan and her novel.

The praise was cut short after The Crimson reported on Sunday, April 23 that “Opal Mehta” contained a number of passages strikingly similar to those in a 2001 novel, “Sloppy Firsts” by Megan F. McCafferty. Similarities were then found between Viswanathan’s book and McCafferty’s sequel, “Second Helpings.” That weekend, The Crimson identified more than a dozen such passages.

“Opal Mehta” and its author were suddenly propelled back into the national media spotlight. The plagiarism controversy made the front page of the Times and was the top story in The Boston Globe. NBC’s Today Show, CNN, and newspapers from Great Britain to India covered the story concerning these similar passages in the three “chick-lit” books.

When The Crimson initially asked Viswanathan about her novel’s similarities with “Sloppy Firsts” over the weekend, she said, “I have no idea what you are talking about.”

However, she admitted to copying language from McCafferty’s two books in a statement released through her publisher on Monday, April 24. Viswanathan said future editions of “Opal Mehta” would be revised to remove the similarities, and she added that “any phrasing similarities between [McCafferty’s] works and mine were completely unintentional and unconscious.”

She made comparable statements later that week in interviews with the Times and Katie Couric on NBC’s Today Show.

The apology did not mollify McCafferty’s publisher, Random House, which rejected the sophomore’s explanation that she unintentionally “internalized” the McCafferty novels.

“Based on the scope and character of the similarities, it is inconceivable that this was a display of youthful innocence or an unconscious or unintentional act,” a representative for Random House said in a statement on Tuesday, April 25. In a letter obtained by The Crimson, a Random House lawyer put it more bluntly, writing to Little, Brown that “we are certain that some literal copying actually occurred here.”

More developments unfolded at a rapid pace. That Thursday, Little, Brown asked bookstores to take “Opal Mehta” off their shelves until a revised edition could be put together. By May 2—after similarities were found between Viswanathan’s novel and books by Meg Cabot, Salman Rushdie, and Sophie Kinsella—the sophomore’s two-book contract had been cancelled and Little, Brown had decided not to rerelease “Opal Mehta.” The entire sequence of events played out in just over a week.

Amid the controversy, administrators maintained that the College’s policies against plagiarism only applied to academic course work. The College looked into the plagiarism allegations, but Viswanathan was spotted on campus throughout the remainder of the semester. Her peer-advising fellowship suggests she’ll be back again in the fall.

After weathering a worldwide media storm, junior year might not seem quite so daunting.

—Staff writer David Zhou can be reached at dzhou@fas.harvard.edu.