We all remember reading Young Adult (YA) fiction. For our generation, it was most likely something by Judy Bloom or Ursula Le Guin. Most of us were also probably so used to the status quo, that we never questioned the absence of South Asian writers. It is thus cause for much jubilation that we finally have a sizable South Asian YA fiction section. Compared to its peers, this book has a distinctly different approach.
In spite of its dreamy, unreal feel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life is not all froth. The subjects it handles are more hardcore, more real than the other books that seem more obviously by adults for teens. There is no pussy footing around the hardcore issues of teenage life in the West -- there is tremendous pressure to conform and more often than not, people succumb to it. Passing allusions to anorexia, statutory rape, premarital sex, interracial relationships, Republican politics and obsessions with materialism litter the book. The narrator never preaches about them from a pulpit, never openly frowns upon them, yet the reader senses the underlying disapproval. She is Opal Mehta, a part of her high school, feeling and dealing with it all as a real high school girl and we are along for the ride.
While we start with the typically perfect South Asian girl (apparently young boys just do not read enough books to make them our subjects yet!), when she is forced to face the fact that she has no friends and does not even know what fun is. In fact, she must fix all that to get into Harvard, her dream school. The goal of getting into Harvard reminded me of Gilmore Girls, and that actually highlighted a theme that remains mostly unexplored here -- while this dream of going to Harvard is driven by her parents' immigrant desires, one wonders why Opal Mehta doesn't question that choice too as she explores her personality and questions her other life choices. Why, even the super conformist Rory Gilmore of the TV show Gilmore Girls gets to change her mind and opt for Yale rather than Harvard in the end.
Speaking of schools and opinions, although it is meant to reflect the thinking of a devastated Opal Mehta at a possible rejection from Harvard, the way she looks down upon working behind the register -- at Patel Cash and Carry -- like her cousin Kali, makes Opal seem a snob: "spending my numbered days behind a register selling gulab jamun mix" makes her "sick", while she also seems to look askance at community colleges, "A puddle of guilt and shame that would have to attend Bergen County Community College".
However, later Opal redeems herself and her creator a little when she interacts like an adult with her cousin Kali, feeling her absolute desire to attend Harvard is not the only thing in the world --
I paused, trying to explain. "Harvard just about equals success in the world. Once you graduate from there, your life is set."
Kali asks, "And you think success is all that matters, Opal?"
I stopped to think for a second. Wasn't it?
The book does an excellent job of introducing us to the heroine through the ploy of the opening early applications interview.
"Tell me a little about yourself...What's your biggest weakness?..Why do you want to come to Harvard?"
The initial sentences also capture our attention with Opal counting random numbers, making us wonder why, till she shares, "Reciting my prime numbers always helped me relax." It is a wonderful nerdy window into her personality and non-life. As is the fact that she can recite parts of the Harvard pamphlets from memory. It may all be a little creepy and sad, but it is also funny.
And funny is what Kaavya writes pretty well. The book has an interesting strain of humor running throughout, which makes the sometimes lengthy read, much easier to bear. There is the obvious hilarious reaction from Opal to the bong-smoking, pierced, fellow applicant Valerie "Valerie probably didn't even know Harvard's school song." The plan of action code named by her family HOWGIH for 'How Opal Will Get Into Harvard' smacks of funny craziness, which incidentally was HAWFAG (I know, I know!) for when her father Amal was looking for a girlfriend. And her reaction to the deadline for getting wild --
before my January 1st deadline. Seriously, what was I going to do? Hurl gnawed chicken bones at my family members? Send Dean Anderson anonymous hate mail? Pretend to see a mouse in McDonald's insist on reimbursement for my Big Mac?Or inspired sentences like --
Jeff was one of the few people in the school who would still speak to me, but as he had taken to reading me inspirational passages from 'How to Win Friends and Influence People', I didn't really enjoy our conversations.
At the same time, the parents behavior and obsessions with their daughter getting into Harvard is oddly bizarre. How many parents want their child to get "a life" if it involves turning a dedicated studious child into a popularity-contest winning, boyfriend lusting, wild child? Further, how many parents are obsessed enough to start adopting slang themselves, create a constantly updated website dedicated to a HOWGAL (How Opal Will Get a Life) project or encourage their offspring to "Get Wild on Woodcliff"? Especially when those parents are of Indian origin? An Indian dad encouraging his teenage daughter to go get kissed?
Perhaps the sense of unreality in the book is a device to get things rolling in an easy, entertaining way. For example if the parents weren't all about their HOWGAL, the plot wouldn't move at the fast pace that it does, the crazy things that happen to Opal as orchestrated by her parents couldn't really happen of their own accord in the matter of weeks if things were left to themselves. In addition, as we come to accept this pervasive unreality, more things can happen without too many questions from the plane of reality.
It was a revelation to learn that this book took shape hand in hand with the publishers who did much market research to help shape the storyline. Interestingly, one can catch glimpses of that machinery at work in the way the book unfolds. While Opal captures her readers' sympathies with her failure at early admissions in the first eight pages, there is no allusion to her Indian roots, except an easily missed one to tea. Is this possibly to lure non-South Asian readers into her world? Maybe this is also the reason for Opal's crazy family. As the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding proved, nothing works better than an over the top family to make the grand example of a culture palatable; and crazy is something the Mehta clan undoubtedly is!
And where would any book about the Indian culture be without the requisite lessons on Indian cuisine -- what it tastes and looks like, how it is cooked. Of course, what better way to introduce it all than an Indian festival, which fortunately happens to fall between early application deadlines and Christmas - namely the Hindu New Year's festival, Diwali! We get the festival and a huge Mehta family get together. There is even the lighthearted discussion of the age old expected topic of arranged marriage, which feels a little unnecessary.
Oddly enough, in an apparent attempt to show that Opal Mehta is not a two dimensional nerdy student type, all the other people cast in this book end-up being two dimensional. Her childhood friend Priscilla is the cool person trying to hide how smart she is, so she can be blackmailed when Opal finds out her secret, that she DJs so supremely well because "(she) map(s) out (her) DJ mixes using differential equations." Sean is the love interest who loses a lot of his sex appeal by almost seeming a little too I've been there, I know what you're going through, know-it-all. Jeff is the disappointing political type, climbing his scuzzy way up the success ladder. Her parents almost seem like they are on some sort of drug, the way they are super hyperactive about everything. Natalie is a fellow nerd, forgiving, sharing and good-hearted despite Opal's betrayal of her, as presumably only the cool chicks can be mean and vindictive.
This is such an appropriate book for the teens, with its themes of coming of age and coming to terms with what being a responsible and well-rounded adult means, the kisses and "almost kisses" scenes, the first love and adoration. This is a great first effort for such a young author. It does not claim to be great literature and the young author should be cut some slack for the funnily entertaining work that she has shared with the world. However, she will most probably continue to be the subject of countless heated discussions, especially from writers, thanks to her half-million dollar book deal.
It was funny to hear that there is also a movie deal pending, as a non-SA friend had laughed about the book's plot, "Won't that make a great movie! Sounds a lot like Clueless." It appears that other people thought the same thing! Like the book, people may complain about its content too, but they will all go watch the movie just to see what all the fuss is about.
Book Description: About 2 weeks after this book was published, allegations emerged that the author had plagiarized significant sections from one or more other novels. The book was withdrawn from publication. See various news reports for more information.
Opal Mehta is a young woman with a laser focus: getting into Harvard. Since her birth, Amal and Meena Mehta have raised their only daughter with Harvard emblazoned on her pajamas, her walls, and her brain. Everything she does is meant to add up to only one thing: the perfect Harvard application. There have been flowcharts, diagrams, and endless checklists. At seventeen, Opal is valedictorian, president of three honor societies, and founder of the Science Bowl team. She even took welding classes to appear well-rounded. With SAT and AP scores to die for, getting in looks like a sure thing. Then, at her interview with Harvard's Dean of Admissions, he sets aside her rèsumè and asks her the single question she never prepped for: "What do you like to do for fun?"
For once, Opal is at a loss. The interview screeches to a nightmarish halt. The Dean says she still has a chance -- but only if she can show that she is more than just another 4.0 GPA. And so the Mehtas turn their ingenuity and determination to a whole new plan: getting Opal a life. Dating, partying, and popularity are the new subjects of late-night cramming, and Opal's study guides are now MTV and the WB, Vogue and InStyle. The girl who wore high-water cords and hung out with her cat for fun is now rocking Manolos, cutting class to shop with the Queen Bees, and winning the attention of her longtime lust object. When Opal finally faces the Dean again -- this time in a Diane von Furstenberg blouse and Theory pants -- she is more confused than ever. Does lip gloss actually matter? Does life have to have a crimson theme? What -- and who -- does she really love? For anyone who's ever sweated a crisis, How Opal Mehta Got Wild, Got Kissed, and Got a Life is a hilarious and painfully real novel about family, love, and daring to push your life to the limit.
More about Kaavya Viswanathan
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