Thursday, 12 January 2012

Opal Mehta book review in The Daily Yomiuri on 9th April 2006

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 qualities.

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.

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