Clare Burgess reviews Kaavya Viswanathan’s ‘coming of age’ story. Purporting to be about a teenage character finding herself, it is in fact is a rather predictable tale where the happy ending involves – guess what? – finding a boyfriend.
Recently I’ve been enchanted by growing up; not myself of course – I’m still dedicated to my LEGO collection – but in fiction. Women in particular. To me a coming of age story should be about finding a way to juggle the demands of the self with the demands of society, but this often gets trivialised until it becomes only a quest to find a man. So how can Opal Mehta, laced up with family obligations and the pressure of getting into Harvard, become a real person, comfortable in her own shoes (and find a man)?
Well, quite predictably really. She is told point-blank at her interview that she must get a life or risk rejection. Her parents wrap her in revealing designer clothing, appropriately labelled high heels, and a basic knowledge of pop culture, and send her off to high school with a list of
objectives: she must become popular, must kiss a boy, and must get wild. This, of course, involves ditching her friends, losing her own identity, and risking her academic career before learning her lesson and becoming a well-rounded person. I’m not going to spoil it by telling you if she got into Harvard though, you can work that out for yourself.
Love is naturally a major focus. Her parents decide that student body president and innocent crush Jeff Akel is a nice respectable candidate for the first kiss. If only he wasn’t misogynistic – urging her to be supportive because “if I’m president, isn’t it redundant for my first lady to be vice
president?!” – self centred, the complete political opposite of her, and cheating. The lack of comment, either of the ‘this seems odd’ or ‘I love him anyway’ kind, is typical of the book as a whole. Quite serious issues are brushed off in a superficial manner. She turns to the futureless Sean Whalen, the bad guy becomes the good guy and the good guy just isn’t suitable at all. Being alone is, as you can imagine, the worst possible thing; in the beginning Opal complains that she’ll never have an orgasm. You know, because you need boys for one of those.
Even life affecting decisions are treated with the minimal concern. Opal expresses disgust for her aunt who tried to arrange marriages for everyone; she couldn’t imagine being married yet. It almost seems like a superficial and patronising nod to her Asian heritage. The idea was brought up so suddenly and dropped so quickly it makes me wonder why it was even mentioned
at all. This can be seen again with the complaints about the clothing; it’s uncomfortable, it’s indecent but, gosh, the attention! It’s quite a realistic reaction; many women, myself included, have a hard time drawing the line between how society expects us to dress and how we would like to, but there seems to be no conflict expressed here, only two rather banal
When Opal whinges in her interview “‘so what if I don’t have a boyfriend?’ I swiped at my eyes ‘So what if I don’t curl my eyelashes every morning? I would be the best student Harvard ever had. I would-‘ I broke off before I started crying in earnest.” we’re left wondering what the hell Viswanathan is getting at. The final scene in the book (barring the epilogue) is when Opal is reunited with Sean who, in his efforts to make her jealous, seems just as petty and unsuitable as Jeff. This is considered the completion of her quest to find herself. Getting into Harvard, solving Fermeculi’s formula, and making peace with where she is heading aren’t what ends Opal’s story; it’s finding love, finding a man.
And that’s how Opal becomes a woman. In parts a story about finding yourself, in parts a story of finding a man. It’s a simple world in which people can afford to makeover their daughter and shower her with gadgets, where bad people start fires, where Republican views are caricatured for a desire to end tutoring to encourage self-reliance. The writing is just as simple, it’s not paced very well and some of the chunky irrelevant asides should have been cut, but it is quite fast and compelling. The vague commentary on teenage life and the almost painfully predictable plot was, in the end, incredibly unsatisfying.