Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Review: The Infinite Wisdom of Harriet Rose

Harriet Rose is no ordinary teenager. In fact, she doesn't even go to an ordinary school. I don't know of many high schools that have taught philosophy for three years, but then, I'm from Australia and this was set in England. The culture is different. I guess we do something like economic studies or drama or something instead.

This book has been compared to The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4 and Bridget Jones' Diary. I'd say that's a bit of a stretch, except that the lead character is English and annoying. As the book opens, Harriet is a somewhat arrogant 14 year old whose father has died, and she has a claim on philosophical thought. She wants to give money to charity for her birthday, and she bounces around words like "metaphysical" and "epistemological".

Her Nana and mother decide to give her a special present - they publish for her a book of her philosophical thoughts in memory of her father, and suddenly she's a superstar author. There's also a subplot involving a romance with a cute French student, first year philosophy.

Now, the book wouldn't be so bad if Harriet wasn't so annoying. There are moments of humour but too many seem forced and Harriet can make you feel like you're being forced through them.

Why, then, do characters like Adrian Mole and Bridget Jones work so well, and they're equally if not more annoying? Adrian is more blinded, more arrogant and less personable than Harriet. Yet I laughed out loud with him and wanted more.

During the whole of Harriet's experience, I felt that the author, though pointing out Harriet's foibles, desperately wanted us to take Harriet's side. Despite the fact that Harriet was an idiot, she deserved the best, and we were urged to love her and feel sorry for her when things went wrong. One obvious device used here was Harriet's father's death. Others were her 'horrible' friend, and her 'mean' headmistress, and the unfailingly supportive family, but of course Harriet really deserves to get the guy, to win in the end. Doesn't she? Yet I felt like bashing her head in, often. And I didn't really think her philosophical ravings were that interesting.

The ending of the book is not bad, and I think is much better than what I expected. It lifts it up a few points. If you get a fair way in, even if it dulls off, i would suggest hanging in for the ending.

As many pointed out, this book is not well-placed as to what it wants to be. It is not like a Harry Potter or the Simpsons where people say it can be enjoyed on many levels. Instead, I think adults interested in philosophy will be sadly disappointed, adults who will understand the broad jokes will find the school references and adolescent humour difficult to relate to, and children may find the philosophical meditations a bit boring, and not quite get all those references. Perhaps for some older teenagers or some adults indulging in a bit of nostalgic teen reading. very much a book for the females.

If you aren't particularly sure and want a very good laugh, and characters blinded to their own foibles appeal to you, I would suggest reading any and all of Sue Townsend's Adrian Mole series rather than Harriet Rose. They are far superior in style and content, and commentary.

This all sounds pretty harsh on the author, Diana Janney, and in fairness, there are some nice bits of dialogue and some cute bits of humour, but altogether they didn't come together as smoothly as I like. There were some lively character depictions, especially that of Nana whom I felt I knew better than Harriet by the time the book was done. I felt that it was a good attempt but could have been put together better; I wouldn't dismiss this author at all. But i would not be rereading this book.

Harriet may be a philosopher, but she doesn't really open a window on the soul nor does she find much time for contemplation, and her book doesn't really make you care to contemplate either. She walks about with a T-shirt saying "Why?" but when I finished the book, I was not asking about the life, the Universe and everything.

I was wondering "why?" this book did I really pick up, and what will I pick up next.

I chose "The Harp in the South" by Ruth Park. I'm preferring it.

P.S. Before reading The Infinite Wisdom of Harriet Rose by Diana Janney, I read a debut children's book called Time Stops for No Mouse by Michael Hoeye. A very different book. it was an adventure fantasy involving talking mice. However all up I preferred Ms Janney's book.

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