Opal doffs her glasses
By Stephen Taylor / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life
by Kaavya Viswanathan
Entering university is an important step for young people,
not only in Japan but all over the world. For Opal Mehta, however, it is a
lifelong dream that she has pursued throughout her preteen and teenage years.
How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life is an
entertaining debut novel from Kaavya Viswanathan, a 19-year-old sophomore at
Harvard University. She was born in Chennai (Madras) and grew up in Scotland
before moving to the United States at the age of 12.
The title of this book gives the reader a fair bit of
information about the plotline, but the journey Opal undertakes is filled with
anecdotes and incidents that will appeal to teenagers--especially any with
experience of the American high school system--and adults alike. Younger
readers will be able to relate to the characters and oldies will find echoes of
their own school lives, albeit in an updated version.
Opal (who, like her creator, is the daughter of an Indian
family living in the United States) is a brilliant high school student in New
Jersey, preparing for graduation and her dream of attending Harvard. Her
precociousness would appear to equip her perfectly for acceptance into such a
prestigious institution, only to be told that she needs to complement her
intellectual skills with lessons in life.
What follows is a refreshing insight into the life of an
upper-middle-class teenager who methodically attempts to become cool and
fashionable by hanging out with a bunch of vain and self-centered female
classmates to make up for her years of academic single-mindedness.
Opal rejects her longtime science class partner Natalie for
her trendy new friends Priscilla, Stacie and Jennifer, collectively known as
the Hautes Bitchez, or HBz for short.
Her experiences with the HBz lead her to discover a side to
her personality that had previously been hidden. Of course, she is playing a
game and can never really be part of that gang but, ultimately, she sheds some
of her more straitlaced traits in favor of tolerance and understanding by the
end of the novel.
Romantic interest is supplied in the form of the president
of the student council, Jeff Akel, an arrogant young man with political
aspirations and ideas that would make U.S. President George W. Bush look like a
woolly liberal, and Sean, a free-spirited, underachieving student with hidden
Opal's family offers a different perspective on the plot.
Her parents are key figures in her scheme to take Harvard by storm, devising an
acronym, HOWGAL (How Opal Will Get A Life), for their plan to help educate her
in the whys and wherefores of U.S. pop culture. The immigrant parents are eager
to see their daughter thrive, making sure she wears the most fashionable
clothes, watches the most popular TV programs and listens to the right music.
Meanwhile, her rebellious cousin, Kali, dares to challenge
her view of Harvard by describing it as "a moldy pile of old bricks."
The use of brand names in place of generic words crops up
all over the pages, and you could be forgiven for thinking that this was a new
form of product placement. Nevertheless, after a quick search on the Internet,
I now know that a Treo 650 is a PDA-cell phone and that TiVo is a new type of
TV recording system.
In spite of this minor distraction, How Opal Mehta Got
Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life is good read that will amuse a wide audience,
though younger readers especially will recognize the themes that are touched
upon, whether they are native or nonnative speakers of English. Indeed, teenage
students of English will find this an accessible novel that will challenge,
inform and entertain in equal measure.