Violence and social position: This might encapsulate the high school experience. In Kaavya Viswanathan's debut novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, the narrator, a well-to-do second-generation Indian American high school senior, cold-bloodedly schemes to get into Harvard—where not coincidentally Viswanathan is currently a sophomore. Opal's plan, triggered by a disastrous campus interview ("Tell me about your best friends" sends her into a panic) and developed by her Cantab-crazed parents, tenuously transforms the brainy, overextended grind into a va-va-voom member of the exclusive Haute Bitchez.
The fact that Opal misconstrues the Harvard dean's advice to "find some balance" as Unleash your inner conspicuous consumer and align yourself with the most hateful people in your class is just one of the novel's troubling spots. But the book, as we all know, has run into problems beyond issues of literary merit. (Indeed, it met with some mystifyingly positive notices, including a New York Times feature on Viswanathan's charmed life.) The Harvard Crimson made a convincing case that several passages in Opal strongly resemble Sloppy Firsts (2001) and Second Helpings (2003), two novels by Megan McCafferty. Subsequent discoveries turned Meg Cabot, Salman Rushdie, and others into instant precursors. And book packager Alloy Entertainment's involvement in Opal's genesis ratcheted up the 'Who wrote what?' level. On April 27 Little, Brown recalled Opal, as if it were an SUV that tends to flip over when making sharp lefts. Its shelf life was under a month.
Forbidden, silenced, the novel now becomes readable, as gripping as a mystery. The bizarre tonal changes suddenly make sense: The whole thing isn't a cloying fantasy of having it all, but the nightmare of answered prayers.
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