Postcolonial Makeover For Harvard-Bound Girl

A few weeks ago, just as Harvard sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan’s debut novel was about to appear on bookstore shelves, a dead, three-foot harbor porpoise was found at the mouth of a creek near her hometown in Bergen County, N.J.

According to the Associated Press report, the dead porpoise was the first marine mammal in recorded history to be fished out of Bergen waters. One can’t help but wonder if it was a warning shot. Nothing like a rotting sea creature, after all, to make a young Harvard student think twice about trashing her old high school’s reputation. The smell alone should have been enough to scare the rising 19-year-old star away from her $500,000 advance from Little, Brown and her DreamWorks movie deal.

Sadly, the mini-leviathan didn’t wash up in time: The book, with its depiction of Bergen County’s citizens as caricatures of bedraggled clichés, was already printed and shipped.

In How Opal Mehta Got Wild, Got Kissed, and Got a Life, Ms. Viswanathan tracks a lifelong nerd from New Jersey as she tries to get into Harvard. Opal is a typical Indian overachiever with perfect grades and a plate of extracurriculars, including a timecard full of volunteer hours logged at the children’s hospital. But for the Harvard dean of admissions, Opal’s perfect résumé isn’t enough—in fact, it suggests to him that she has no friends and has never had fun. “Harvard doesn’t want a campus full of automatons,” he tells her. Get out there and be a kid, he suggests, and reapply when you can show Harvard “what a well-rounded candidate you’ve become.”

Opal misinterprets this advice to mean that she should get a complete makeover and become the most popular girl in school. She begins right away; her parents, who’ll naturally do anything it takes to get their daughter into Harvard, help to devise a plan.

As the novel unfolds, Opal successfully turns herself from a science-team lowlife into a desirable lunchroom socialite—a typical American teenage girl who watches music videos, goes to the mall and dances drunkenly with boys on top of tables. Her parents are right behind her, constantly nagging her to wear short skirts, follow the plotline of Desperate Housewives and pursue boys who might be willing to kiss her. They buy her new clothes and makeup (“Every inch of me had been cut, filed, steamed, exfoliated, polished, painted, or moisturized”), force her to learn about pop culture (“ Teen People was open in my lap, and I was watching Beyoncé’s ‘Naughty Girl’ video while taking notes on her dance moves”), and convince her to abandon her old lunch friends in favor of the “Haute Bitchez” girl collective.

The plan works, and soon a new Opal walks the halls of Woodcliff High swiveling her hips and begging with every step of her stilettos for the great white stallions on the football team to colonize her. In what’s possibly the most direct instance of imperial imagery, Ms. Viswanathan compares her makeover to Operation Desert Storm, which may or may not be a reference to an earlier joke about Woodcliff’s “WASP indoctrination culture.” (In that same passage, Ms. Viswanathan jokes about how the Indian families in her town all drive Range Rovers and Mercedes, live in the same type of house, and hire the same Guatemalan housekeeper. She also mentions a Sikh boy in her class who stores marijuana in his turban. This is all very awkward.)

The rest of the book sees poor Opal take on a pathetic, postcolonial kind of Invisible Man double-consciousness, collapsing inside as she betrays herself more and more completely. She tries to be cool and care about things like makeup and brand names, but she’s still preoccupied with math problems and other schoolwork.

As Opal struggles to adjust the mask, Ms. Viswanathan loses track of her own, revealing a writer who’s not just misguided but punitive—a writer who fits all her characters into well-worn teen-drama archetypes and then condemns them for being formulaic.

That said, everything that is or does anything in this novel is a cliché. Ms. Viswanathan’s characters are all caricatures, her plot points are all lifted from movies—though, for what it’s worth, she never conceals her influences. In fact, she refers to them incessantly.

Opal takes cues from shows like The OC, Laguna Beach and The Real World. The wild house party she throws near the end of the book is explicitly compared to movies like Can’t Hardly Wait, Sixteen Candles, Risky Business, Road Trip and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Before her big date with the student-council president, her parents provide her with a few possible plans of action, the first of which comes from She’s All That (“convince Jeff’s best friend to bet him that he can’t turn you into the prom queen”), the second from Ten Things I Hate About You and the third from The Skulls. Right before Opal leaves the house, her mother tells her to “titillate” her date by channeling Cruel Intentions.

It makes you wonder whether the editors over at Little, Brown were making similar suggestions to Ms. Viswanathan. Opal Mehta is an unabashed rewrite of Tina Fey’s Mean Girls, diluted with ethnic complications via Bend It Like Beckham, and filled in lengthwise with a pastiche of every high-school drama ever shown on the Disney Channel.

If only they’d sent the porpoise in six months earlier, Bergen County and American youth in general might have been spared the shame of being turned yet again into an ephemeral, MTV-based parody of itself. Opal Mehta is supposed to be émigré chick-lit; instead it’s confirmation, delivered from the regrettably reliable mouth of a Harvard student, that being a high-school kid has become boring.

Leon Neyfakh is a junior at Harvard majoring in history and literature.