Okay, so I finished it. It was not bad: a decently frothy read, not too much mental energy expended, and the author did a nice job weaving in cultural details (both Indian/Desi and New Jersey high school) without going overboard or devolving into the didactic.
But . . .
I am the wrong person to read this book. Problem #1: It is written by someone who is both younger than I *and* more successful (despite having the same opportunities/education in general). I cannot be an objective reader when I finish every chapter thinking, "Okay, at the time in your life that you were writing this, I was watching Animaniacs and pretending to understand The Fairie Queene."
Problem #2: In a previous post, I mentioned the Fictional Harvard problem; it continues throughout the book, though not quite in the same way. The geography gets better, but the portrayal of Harvard is so relentlessly positive that it felt unreal. Harvard is the perfect place! For nerds! For princesses! For hippies! Come to Harvard and be happy forever! I have my own biases, but this utopian idealization would have bothered me no matter where it was set.
Minor things: Very little was surprising, plot-wise. I was annoyed during the pre-frosh visit section, where Opal was astonished and surprised by things like the dorms, the square, the food, the classes. Someone who has been polishing herself for Harvard for 17 years would've done that kind of research (and hello: the dorms are pictured in the admissions materials). The interactions with the dean of admissions felt contrived and implausible. And the naivete of Opal and her parents about friendships and popularity seemed like a stretch: they're intelligent, driven people, sure -- but they have friends, too, and Mrs. Mehta's keen understanding of the Indian social scene in their neighborhood makes it unlikely that she would be so dense when it came to Opal's popularity and the pitfalls of HOWGAL.
Still, I must admit: I liked Opal. Not all the time, and not always a lot, but I did care enough to want to see her have a happy ending. (Sidenote: I wasn't sure whether to be impressed with my prescience, or just resigned, to discover that Opal does, in fact, drink Scorpion Bowls.)
Bottom line: A good choice for summer reading, but don't expect much more from it.
How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life by Kaavya Viswanathan. Little, Brown, 2006. 320 pages.
UPDATE: The Harvard Crimson published an article suggesting that Viswanathan's novel bears a few striking similarities to Megan McCafferty's 2001 Sloppy Firsts. (AP article, via Boston.com)