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    Contributors | September 15, 2015

    Mary Karr: IMG Memoir Tutorials with Mary Karr, Lena Dunham, and Gary Shteyngart

    Editor's note: It's been 20 years since the groundbreaking memoir The Liars' Club sent Mary Karr into the literary spotlight with its phenomenal... Continue »
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      Mary Karr 9780062223067

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Penelope (Vintage Contemporaries)


Penelope (Vintage Contemporaries) Cover

ISBN13: 9780307950314
ISBN10: 030795031x
Condition: Standard
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Reading Group Guide

1. How do Penelope’s first days at Harvard set the tone of the novel?  What in particular does Penelope find different from what she expects college to be like—both from what she knows about Harvard and what her mother tells her?

2. Penelope seems oblivious at times to Harvard’s protocols, both academic and social. Is Penelope’s reaction to her peers’ behaviors sensible and level-headed, or does it display a certain lack of ambition and perspective on her part? To what extent is she aware of and bothered by her somewhat outsider status?

3. Throughout the novel there are many references to Harvard buildings, hangouts, traditions, and even the terminology students use without much explanation.  Why does the author choose to use Harvard in particular rather than basing the story at an unnamed college?  In what ways do the details sharpen the satirical thrust of the novel?

4. What role does social class play in the novel? What are the signifiers of class that Penelope sees, and what effect do they have on her friendships and sense of belonging?

5. What draws Penelope and Ted together? Is their friendship based on happenstance and convenience or a shared feeling of loneliness and not fitting in with the crowd?

6. Ted and Penelope’s first near-romantic encounter is far from perfect (pp. 32-34): he divulges how he misses his old girlfriend in California, but then awkwardly asks Penelope to lay down with him for a fleeting moment that neither of them can make sense of. How does this scene, and their conversation, bring out their emotional and social confusion? Which comic touches and clichés add to the authenticity of the scene and invoke the reader’s empathy?

7. What explains Penelope’s obsession with Gustav? What does he represent to her, both on his own and as a foil to Ted? Does Penelope get carried away by her own fantasies and expectations of college love, or is Gustav genuinely interested in her? To what extent does Penelope control the direction their relationship takes? 

8. Harrington puts a great deal of emphasis on Penelope’s courses (“Images of Shakespeare,” and the course nicknamed “Counting People”). Did you feel the author’s parodic descriptions of them were more a reflection of Penelope’s character, or a sly comment on academia’s pomposity, or both?

9. How does the production of Camus’s Caligula bring together the themes of the novel? In what ways do preparations for and the actual performance encapsulate Penelope’s overall experiences during her freshman year?

10. What do Penelope’s conversations with her mother, scattered throughout the book, contribute to your sense of how Penelope sees and defines herself? What do her mother’s opinions reflect about the relationship between mother and daughter? What do they show about the universal concerns of a parent? Did you feel that her mother helped or hurt Penelope in preparing her for college life?

11. Is Penelope unusually naïve and unsophisticated for someone of her age and background? What reasons might the author have for creating a protagonist who seems to be unprepared for—or unaware of—what to expect as a college freshman? Does Penelope become more aware and sure of herself over the course of the novel?

12. What is the significance of the waffle depicted on the cover of the book?

What Our Readers Are Saying

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Amy O, August 29, 2012 (view all comments by Amy O)
Just plain fun fall read about a young woman navigating her freshman year at Harvard.
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Product Details

Harrington, Rebecca
Vintage Books
Humor : General
Literature-Coming of Age
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Vintage Contemporaries
Publication Date:
7.9 x 5.1 x 0.82 in 0.6375 lb
Age Level:
Literature-Coming of Age

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Related Subjects

Arts and Entertainment » Humor » General
Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z
Fiction and Poetry » Literature » Coming of Age
Fiction and Poetry » Literature » Debut Fiction

Penelope (Vintage Contemporaries) Used Trade Paper
0 stars - 0 reviews
$10.50 In Stock
Product details 288 pages Vintage Books - English 9780307950314 Reviews:
"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "Harrington's debut is a wryly funny bildungsroman chronicling the titular character's freshman year at Harvard, and all the supplementary standard collegiate fare — drunken parties and regrettable hookups, pretentious extracurriculars, friends with and without benefits, an incessant pressure to succeed, and the #1 question: Who am I? Relatively plotless, the novel still works in a meandering, searching way. Penelope is sweet but socially awkward, and woefully prone to let little things spiral out of control — during a drunken dance, a boy kisses Penelope, 'mostly with his incisors,' before vomiting on her shoes; and a favor for a roommate leads to a long-term commitment to a stage production of Caligula. While navigating the perilous social tides of the sea of her privileged peers, Penelope's heart floats between Ted, whose romantic involvement with Penelope's friend Catherine is ill-defined, and eccentric Gustav, who uses words like 'darling' and 'bourgeois,' and prides himself on being 'as primed for disease as an Indian.' Penelope's candidly deadpan neuroses provide plenty of humor, and while the well-off kids of Harvard Yard might seem too aloof, in Harrington's hands they're entertaining company. Agent: Jane Finigan, Lutyens & Rubinstein." Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
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