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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 pre-Pixar Disney.
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 Harvard T-shirt.”
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 never leaves.
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 down.”
“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 attention:
“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 smiling.”
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 that.”
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 success.
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 teen movies.
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 uncomfortable shoes.
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 into Harvard.
—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.
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