05 May 2006
Sloppy Firsts and Opal Mehta
With all the hubbub about 19-year-old Harvard sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan and the plagiarism in her debut novel, "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life," Word Nerd decided to read both Viswanathan's book and the one she borrowed from, Megan McCafferty's "Sloppy Firsts."
This is a spoiler alert. If you want to discover these books on your own, don't keep reading. Plot will be given away.
The basic premise is that high school sophomore Jessica Darling is crushed when her best friend moves away, leaving her to socialize with three other girls she dubs the "Clueless Crew." As Jess wrestles with the discontent and two-faced-ness of her friends, she finds she may have more in common with Marcus Flutie, a mysterious genius, than she ever would have suspected.
High school senior Opal Mehta wants nothing more than to get into Harvard. She's got the grades and the SAT scores for it, but in her early admissions interview, the school tells her she needs to get a life in addition to great grades to be admitted. Opal and her parents devise a plan to make her popular. Opal gets frustrated with the two-faced-ness of her new social status and finds she may have more in common with Sean Whalen, hot and brainy rocker, than she would have ever suspected.
What was good about McCafferty's book:
As a reader, Word Nerd got completely sucked in to Jess Darling's life. It was very easy to want to see the character grow and adapt.
What was good about Viswanathan's book:
Downright funny. The best characters in the book are Opal's parents who go completely over the top in trying to help Opal learn to be cool. When Opal's dad trots out slang like "dope," "mad ice" and "crunk" it's hard not to chuckle.
What wasn't good about McCafferty's book:
There were times where the plot sequence of the book leapt around and it was confusing as to what happened when.
What wasn't good about Viswanathan's book (plagiarism aside):
Predictable. There was little doubt in Word Nerd's mind about how the book would end. The plot trudged along in expected patterns.
What wasn't good about Viswanathan's book (plagiarism included):
Since Word Nerd read this book immediately after finishing "Sloppy Firsts" and had read the news stories about the number of copied passages, they were easy to spot in the book. It's doubtful Word Nerd spotted all of them, but there were definite places where sentence construction seemed very familiar.
While it's not word-for-word copying, Viswanathan's characters also felt familiar as a reader.
Similarity 1. The main character is smarter than her friends.
Similarity 2. The group that the main character hangs out with has three people in it. These three girls have some character traits that in Viswanathan's book feels like she took the basic idea of McCafferty's characters and renamed them.
Similarity 3. The main character has a crush on a popular boy.
Similarity 4. There is a mysterious but brainy boy who catches the attention of the main character and see through her facade.
Similarity 5. One of the group that the main character hangs out with used to be her best friend when she was younger.
There are others, but this list gets at the main point -- as a reader, if felt like Viswanathan took McCafferty's book as a template and started changing things to make a new story instead of starting from scratch.
All that said, Word Nerd has some measure of regret for Viswanathan. Parts of "Opal Mehta" really were funny or insightful or otherwise well-written. With all the bad press, it looks like Viswanathan's career as a writer could be over, which is really too bad. A little bit more wisdom and life experience and a new novel and Viswanathan could have really been the star author that the early reviews of "Opal" hinted that she could be.