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Teen troubles

Plagiarism reports overshadow fact that Opal's story lacked more than originality

How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life
By Kaavya Viswanathan
Little, Brown, 313 pp., $21.95

Lest you think I'm the kind of reviewer who spends his spare time clubbing baby seals to death for sport, let me say up front that Kaavya Viswanathan, the 19-year-old author of ''How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life," is unlikely to be responsible for all the inanities that abound in this product marketed under her name. The book, which the publisher is now racing to recall because of a plagiarism controversy, reads as if it were assembled by a committee, and, according to many reports, it was.

When the Indian-American Harvard student presented her book to the prestigious William Morris Agency, it was deemed ''too dark" and was sent to 17th Street Productions (now Alloy Entertainment), a company that specializes in packaging young adult novels. The manuscript was accepted by an editor at Little, Brown, who said, ''There was more shaping to this book than we usually do." What emerged from the collaborative effort, after a nearly $500,000 advance for two novels, was touted as breezy and hilarious.

But last week, a not-so-funny story emerged. Press reports said that dozens of passages in the book, as well as some plotlines and stylistic devices, had been borrowed from two popular young adult novels, ''Sloppy Firsts" and ''Second Helpings," published by Megan McCafferty in 2001 and 2003. Viswanathan admitted ''inadvertent" plagiarism, but one has to wonder how the borrowing from such widely reviewed recent novels went completely undetected by the publishing specialists who were supposed to guide the book into print.

At any rate, if you're a high-school girl -- especially one who is as rich, sheltered, and docile as Opal Mehta -- you might be mildly amused by the novel if you can snare a copy of it, despite the recent revelations. If you're older, though, I doubt you'd be much more than annoyed at the publisher for passing this thing off as adult fiction. The controversy is one problem, but another is that the book just isn't very good.

In the book, Opal's parents have always wanted her to go to Harvard, and have programmed her journey there, encouraging her to get top grades and excel at extracurricular activities that will look good to the college's admissions officers. She starts a Science Bowl team, boasts fluency in French, Spanish, German, and Chinese, and takes a welding course. But her admissions interviewer says that, in order be accepted at Harvard, she needs to show that she can socialize and have fun like a normal teenager.

In much postcolonial fiction, a young protagonist comes into conflict with conservative family members who have trouble assimilating materialistic Western values. In this novel, though, Opal's wealthy Indian parents cram American consumerist culture down their daughter's throat. They draw up a plan for her called HOWGAL, or How Opal Will Get A Life. She is then packaged as a girl who will (1) get popular, (2) get kissed, and (3) get wild.

Becoming popular involves spending vast sums of money at the mall. There, a Bergdorf personal shopper color-coordinates fashionable outfits that will win Opal admittance to Woodcliff High School's leading clique, a couture-obsessed group who persuade her to turn her back on the ''Geek Squad."

Getting kissed means winning the heart of a dreamboat named Jeff, whose ''melting Godiva-chocolate eyes" make Opal's knees ''turn to Jell-O." It takes her most of the book to figure out that a guy who says ''I haven't achieved my true potential because my nature is just too delicate" might not be for her.

Getting wild means throwing a party at which Opal's classmates get drunk on liquor left out for them by her parents, who show up to videotape her first kiss with a boy who sees the goodness beneath her newly-glitzed exterior.

Of course, Opal eventually discovers how shallow American pop culture can be. She also learns that thoroughly assimilating it will get her everything she wants, including her parents' approval and her slot at Harvard.

The book cover's Indian design, with its cartoon of a young woman gaily swinging a bag, might lead you to think you're in for a tandoori-flavored chick-lit experience. But no: Opal's Asian heritage is rarely mentioned, and the cuisine is Chicken McNuggets. Hardly a snarky word is spoken throughout, though brand names do pop up constantly. (Never mind Bergdorf and Godiva; ''Harvard" appears 34 times in the book's opening 20-page chapter.) The novel is also full of repetitious explanations: Everything that Opal feels is highlighted several times so that even the dimmest reader knows how to respond to her.

The rest of the characters are cardboard cutouts. Though the book's style is breathlessly young-adult, the plot has little resemblance to those found in books written for actual adolescents. Don't look for sex, drugs, or violence at Opal's high school. The worst tragedy that occurs is when a girl breaks a fingernail carrying a cafeteria tray. This is satire, of course, but it's as bland as can be. Opal and her Woodcliff friends are so wholesome that they seem to have been lifted from a 1950s sitcom.

Every now and then, a fresh, incisive sentence appears amid the airbrushed prose of ''How Opal": ''I now realized why girls had to choose between being smart or pretty," the heroine says. ''If you went with pretty, there simply weren't enough hours in the day to keep being smart." Of course, it doesn't help that McCafferty expresses a similar sentiment in her writing.

Kaavya Viswanathan may have real talent. I hope that she takes years to produce her next book, enough time to shake off her handlers and find out if she can write something original, perhaps even dark -- anything but a sequel to this insipid, derivative, post-postcolonial McNovel.

Edward Hower's books include ''The Pomegranate Princess," a volume of folk tales he collected while on Fulbright grants in India, and ''The Storms of May," his latest novel.

From the Boston Globe:
 Harvard novelist's book deal canceled (By David Mehegan, Globe Staff, 5/3/06)
 After duplicated words, words of apology (By David Mehegan, Globe Staff, 4/25/06)
 In many ways, parallels in 'Opal,' 'Sloppy Firsts' are striking (By Lisa Wangsness, Globe Staff, 4/25/06)
 Raytheon chief admits using another's aphorisms (By Robert Weisman, Globe Staff, 4/25/06)
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Read excerpts from both authors
 Harvard author faces scrutiny (By Lisa Wangsness, Globe Staff, 4/24/06)
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