It's almost 60 years since Kingsley Amis sparked off the "campus novel" genre with Lucky Jim.
Since then, its most famous exponents have probably been David Lodge and Malcolm Bradbury, although two years ago a study by Ann K McLennan titled How British Women Writers Transformed The Campus Novel attempted to wrestle it from the male-only grasp. It's refreshing, then, to see a young woman join the genre with her debut novel about Harvard "freshman" Penelope O'Shaunnessy.
There's a strong tradition of satire in this genre, too, and Harrington very gently draws on that with her survey of student nerds, social climbers, aloof geniuses, creepy teaching fellows and rich playboys, all populating the hallowed halls of one of America's greatest universities. Penelope is "of average height and lank hair" but she soon gets noticed, first by one of the nerds, Ted, and then by a rich playboy, Gustav, whose grandparents had to flee Germany for Argentina after the Second World War.
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Ted is clearly smitten with Penelope, who's not quite so keen on him, having eyes only for blond, handsome, louche Gustav, and she spends as much time avoiding him as desperate fellow nerd Catherine spends chasing him. Penelope's room-mates don't help much – both are utterly self-absorbed, maths genius Lan to the point of complete silence and social-climbing Emma occupied solely and almost insanely with trying to break into the wealthiest student groups.
The university's association with money is highlighted in the depiction of students halls – the most decorative are naturally the most wealthy, as their graduating students invest in their alma mater once they've hit the big time.
Harrington's debut isn't ambitious – this is a mostly sweet coming-of-age novel, partly autobiographical in the sense that she studied at Harvard herself, and it's good on the detail of spurious exam choices and competitive studying. But it did have me wondering about the current direction of the publishing industry. Harrington thanks her editor in her Acknowledgements thus: "her edits of my language and sentence structure were truly brilliant, and she has an uncanny knack for changing just one word in a sentence and making it funnier, lighter and more subtle".
The industry has been shedding editors' jobs for years now, and usually critics like myself are busy complaining of a lack of editing, not too much of it. This tribute, though, hints at the latter, and made me wonder just how much this interference has contributed to the remarkably slow and deliberate pace of this novel, as though it was being written for beginners. Penelope is a thoroughly unobjectionable character. Anything potentially offensive has been edited out for the broadest possible appeal. When one thinks back to Amis, that, I think, is a great pity.