Every good physicist knows that the best way to solve a tough problem is by falling back on first principles. And veterans of the high school science fair circuit like Opal Mehta know the first principle of preparing a project for the most prestigious competitions: Always call in your professional “mentor” for assistance on the research paper. Q.E.D., it’s not much of a surprise that Harvard sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan’s novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life contains “completely unintentional and unconscious” similarities to the work of a professional, in this case young adult novelist Megan McCafferty.
An amiably frothy if formulaic take on a teenager’s quest to beat the college admissions game—the independent variable is the Asian-American female protagonist, which is not an insignificant thing—Opal Mehta‘s abstract is appealing enough, forgetting that more problematic stuff for a moment. After a Harvard admissions dean tells New Jersey’s most promising junior physicist that she needs to add some F.U.N. to her resume, the fam embarks on “HOWGAL” (“How Opal Will Get a Life”), a comic campaign to get her Harvard, the school hottie, and the haute-st friends. Hilarity, of course, ensues. Before the plagiarism scandal erupted, I admit I mistook Opal Mehta for a completely intentional parody of teen media, the kind of half-clever, self-aware product one might expect from the Harvard Lampoon. The joke, I assumed, was that only Ivy Leaguers would get that the book was supposed to be a joke. I imagined Viswanathan, Widener Library, Cambridge, Mass., tapping away on her laptop during freshman finals in a rare moment of silliness: “‘It’s formulaic ‘cause that’s, like, the moral, right, that not everything can be reduced to a science? That’s soooo “Mehta”!”
But Mehta, damn her, proved my hypothesis incorrect. By now the Technorati faithful can quote the numerous plagiarized passages, which are now thought to number as many as 40. Whoever wrote them, Mehta does have its moments, the most memorable of them coming from Opal’s physician father, who drills himself in teen slang on SAT-style flashcards. It’s refreshing, forgetting the whole scandal thing, to see that an Ivy Leaguer who claims to read Booker Prize finalists for fun has deigned to associate her name with something so unpretentious—for further reading, c.f. Natalie Krinsky, Chloe Does Yale (Hyperion, 2005). It’s the kind of book you read knowing the author (whoever it was) was wondering which character actor could say “crunk” in a funny accent in the trailer for the Dreamworks adaptation (God willing), but materials and methods Viswanathan et al. have cobbled together are enjoyable nonetheless.
The prose does have a noticeable studied quality, and it’s suspicious that soon into her studies Opal drops pop culture references with the neat precision of her proofs. That Opal can claim unfamiliarity with The O.C., L-Lo, and the like after having logged three years at a suburban high school also requires some suspension of disbelief, but the more egregious offense is that Opal’s reference points in her chosen field of research (blogs! “Haute Bitchez”! jean brands!) tie the book too closely to the time of publication. It’s a common problem in physics papers, which are usually only memorable if they are wrong—a quip, I should perhaps clarify, was inspired by a portion of Bobos in Paradise. But then again, datedness never hurt This Side of Paradise, right?
Future readers should factor in a margin for error: In addition to the disputed passages, a commenter on South Asian culture blog Sepia Mutiny has noted a mathematical error in the book’s first sentence, Mehta’s inclusion of the number one in a recitation of prime numbers (it calms her down). And no points for originality on the character of the requisite crush, allegedly inspired by one of Viswanathan’s former objects of affection, who smirks Jesse Bradford-style (the punkish brah from Bring it On) through crucial plot points as an unlikely confidant for our ambivalent nerd. Much more amusing, as a Harvard Crimson reviewer has previously observed, is the initial target of HOWGAL, class conservative Jeff Akel. Akel is a Princeton-bound future politician whose awkward attempts at social finesse are endearing in that they are sadly realistic, both at Harvard and at assorted Universities of Second Choice.
In summary, Viswanathan et al. have produced a thorough survey in the genre, but were ultimately sloppy in the execution. It wasn’t supposed to turn out that way. Viswanathan’s slim parable of pride (ethnic) and prejudice (not ethnic) was supposed to join what one might call the “League lit” pantheon. Opal Mehta was supposed to stand for all time alongside “Gen Y” joints like Prep, Privilege, and the oeuvre of a certain adorably precocious magical realist from Princeton, if only as a prime example of a passing fad. And such a promising premise!
But like Opal’s story, we’ve heard Viswanathan’s story, too, before. “It was a fake,” Margaret Yang confesses, finally, of her elaborate science fair project at the climax of Rushmore. “What do you mean?” Max asks back. “The results.” “Why?” “Because it didn’t work. I thought it would, but it didn’t.” Remember how much you loved Margaret Yang? She followed around poor Maxie like a puppy dog, treasured shallow things like status and smarts, but you couldn’t help but be charmed by her calculated whimsy and dogged persistence. Kaavya Viswanathan, telegenic though she may be, lacks actress Sara Tanaka’s peculiar appeal, but her fictional heroine has a bit of Margaret’s magic left in her. And you’ve been a real jerk to her, you know that?
Consider the novel a protracted experiment, then, a procedural, and nothing more. Maybe it’s not ready for publication, but I’ll give it a solid B-plus. In Opal’s distorted worldview, should be good enough for Cornell or Penn.