Author: C.J. Farley
Title: Around Harvard Square
Publication Info: Brooklyn, NY : Black Sheep / Akashic Books, 2019.
I received a free copy of this book through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.
This novel is narrated by Tosh, an African-American Freshman at Harvard who grew up in a small town in rural Upstate New York and is the first person in his family to go away for college. He forms a friendship of outcasts with his roommate Lao, a student from China with a fear of robots, and Meera, an androgynous Indian student. He also is attracted to the mysterious Zippa, a Jamaican student squatting in the trash room of his residence hall.
The trio of Tosh, Lao, and Meera take a philosophy course with an eccentric and provocative professor known as “the Chair.” They also get involved in a competition to get spots on the staff of the university humor magazine, the Harvard Harpoon. The experience is a lot like rushing a fraternal organization with hazing rituals and cruel pranks. Zippa appears first as something like a Greek chorus on what Tosh is doing and then later joins the action as a provocateur.
Many names in the novel are changed – like the Harpoon, which is substituted for the Lampoon – as are the names of prominent Harvard alumni, although it’s blatantly obvious who they are. There’s also a book within the narrative called Around Harvard Square which is said to be a famous novel where all the names were changed, so that’s super-meta, I guess. The book is set in the 90s which is emphasized by each chapter being named for a 90s alternative rock or hip hop song title. But the dialogue in the book seems more like it’s from the 2010s. Also, I may be stretching it here, but I see odd parallels between Tosh, Lao, and Meera with the leads in another school-based book set in the 90s, Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Only 90s kids will understand.
I really want to love this book, because it is witty and the characters and the premise are a good start. But unfortunately, the plot just jumps around, there are way too many coincidences, and the dialogue is like people practicing dialectics rather than natural speak. The idea that privileged white people and the academic institutions that support them need to be taken down a peg is a good one (and super relevant reading this just after the college admissions scandal), but there’s no subtlety in this satire.
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