Opal Mehta is a really crappy book

Back in the early days of my site, I wrote a post defending Kaavya Viswanathan during her plagiariasm scandal. In a nutshell, I argued that her book sucked so much that it couldn’t have been plagiarized. Well, it’s time to come clean with a little ethical scandal of my own: I hadn’t read the book—until now.

“All shelf copies of Opal Mehta were ultimately recalled and destroyed by the publisher”

Baka-Raptor: 2, Wikipedia: 0

Finally back on top

I expected not to like this book for many reasons. It was written by a high school student. It was teen chick lit. It had Indian stuff. With all those things to piss me off, the last thing on my mind was math.

I started my count at one.

By the time we got out of the car and began walking toward the sign that said Byerly Hall: Admissions Office, I was at nineteen. Reciting my prime numbers always helped me relax.

ONE IS NOT A PRIME NUMBER. Unbelievable. She fucked up THE VERY FIRST SENTENCE OF THE BOOK, all because she was blinded by the poeticism of beginning her book with the number one. Here’s a better idea: do your fucking research.

The plot:

  1. Opal is an uptight nerd with a spotless academic record
  2. She goes to Harvard for her interview
  3. The interviewer asks her what she does for fun
  4. Opal does not comprehend this notion of “fun”
  5. The interviewer tells her to reapply when she’s no longer a loser
  6. Opal begins her quest to get kissed, get wild, and get a life

From this point on, it’s a generic not-to-hot story. Opal gets a makeover, which wouldn’t be complete without Jimmy Choo shoes. She ditches the nerds to hang out with the popular girls. She did some other stuff that happened in She’s All That, Mean Girls, and the n – 2 chick flicks I haven’t seen. Then, following predictable plot points, her social life comes crashing down, and she’s forced to reevaluate her priorities. Redemption ensues.

The only thing that wasn’t predictable was Opal’s parents. Knowing personally the social ultraconservatism of Indian parents, I assumed Opal Mehta got kissed, got wild, and got a life behind her parents’ backs (or got a beating). Kaavya Viswanathan even brought up the “no dating until you’re married” rule, so she couldn’t have been unfamiliar. Much to my surprise, Opal’s parents completely sold out when they found out she needed a social life to get into Harvard. With the zeal they once pushed her into academics, they now pushed her into being a huge slut.

I was hoping Opal Mehta would be the relatable kind of stereotype, but all too often she turned out to be the farcical kind of stereotype. Let’s start with prime numbers. I wrote a report on prime numbers in the 11th grade. I presented it at the Math Fair and got a bronze medal, which was a disappointment in light of the gold medal I got two years earlier for my paper on fuzzy logic.

Even the bronze medal is ashamed to admit it

I am a huge loser who writes math reports about prime numbers, yet I could never picture anyone in a million years counting prime numbers to quell her anxiety. The book is full of shit like this. Just when we’re starting to feel a little empathy with Opal, she does something ridiculous to push herself back into a stereotype. Why go so far? Is it supposed to be cute? There are thousands of socially lifeless, AP/extracurricular-overloaded, Ivy League-aspiring, overpressured high school students across America who want to read about a character just like themselves, but instead of making Opal Mehta realistically nerdy, Kaavya Viswanathan decided to make the character so exaggeratedly nerdy that it made her look like a retard.

I understand that this book is targeted at teens. The satire isn’t always going to require deep analysis. Fine. When Opal repeatedly questions why the slackers around her can’t see things the normal way, yeah, we get it already, you don’t see things the normal way either, and the normal way isn’t necessarily the best way. When she acts like it’ll be the end of the world if she gets rejected from Harvard, yeah, we get it already, going to Harvard isn’t the only way to succeed, and going to Harvard in itself doesn’t guarantee success. I could stomach all that thematic force-feeding until a line in which Opal states that the whole purpose of being successful in life is to become rich enough to afford to die in a really nice coffin. Holy fuck. She said it without a trace of sarcasm. I triple checked. It might be a good line if the hot slacker who Opal had a crush on said it to poke fun at Opal’s warped priorities, but for Opal to say it herself when she’s supposedly being serious? Is that how you develop a believable character? Is that how you write good satire? And what ever happened to cremation? By the way, she eats beef. Now nobody gets to whine about my India bashing because Opal Mehta doesn’t have the moral high ground.

Her writing style was about what I expected. For every clever line, there was an awkward one that would only sound clever to an AP English student. I know because it’s a phase my own writing went through back in high school. She also reference dropped everything in the AP curriculum from double integrals to Perestroika, just to remind you that she’s really smart. This is why you don’t give a $500,000 book deal to a high school student (unless the fact that she’s young and Harvard-bound is a cheap sales gimmick). Let her style develop and mature. It’s not like she’d turn down a $500,000 book deal when she graduates.

This brings us to the plagiarism scandal. The only video I could find of her was this one, which seems to have a slight anti-Kaavya bias:

Ok, I found a real version after looking harder:

I don’t trust a damn word she says, and it’s not just because she’s Indian, which is generous considering I haven’t found any scientifically backed studies suggesting that Indian girls aren’t all pathological liars. Of course, some of her excuses could very well be half-truths. For example, nobody could be stupid enough to intentionally plagiarize the number 170. Italicizing brainy might have seemed like a good stylistic choice because it unconsciously rung a bell. An isolated sentence about wearing a shirt with a day of the week printed on it isn’t all that special and shouldn’t be considered plagiarism.

Then there’s all that real plagiarism. The “Pause” exchange has plagiarism written all over it. After she’d read the “Diet Cokes” joke three times, she couldn’t have possibly thought it was originally hers. The “Human Evolution” thing doesn’t even make sense in its plagiarized form. Why would you learn about sexual harassment in a class about Human Evolution?

Still not convinced she’s a plagiarist? Look at the Salman Rushdie quotes. 100% plagiarized. Did she read his books three times each too?

Somehow, lost in the whole plagiarism scandal is the fact that the book sucked. The plagiarized portions weren’t all that long or vital to the story, and while requiring some creativity, they weren’t exactly impossible to write. It’s one thing to plagiarize a doctoral dissertation, but a teen chick lit novel? Could she be more pathetic? Does she also cheat when she plays solitaire? At least Kaavya’s now becoming a lawyer, a profession that not only allows copying but encourages it.

I shall now send my freshly autographed copy of Opal Mehta to Michael for a true literary critique.