Harvard Paper Exposes Possible Plagiarism in Student Author’s Novel

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The debut novel of a Harvard University sophomore includes several passages that are similar to a work by another author published in 2001.

Kaavya Viswanathan’s “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life” was published in March by Little, Brown and Co., which signed her to a hefty two-book deal when she was just 17.

On Sunday, the Harvard Crimson reported the similarities on its Web site, citing seven passages in Viswanathan’s book that parallel the style and language of “Sloppy Firsts,” a 2001 novel by Megan McCafferty published by Random House.

Viswanathan, whose book hit 32nd on the New York Times’ hardcover fiction best seller list this week, did not immediately return a phone message seeking comment. When reached by the Crimson on Saturday, she said: “No comment. I have no idea what you are talking about.”

Michael Pietsch, the publisher of Little, Brown, said Sunday that the company planned to investigate the similarities.

“I can’t believe that these are anything but unintentional,” Pietsch said. “She is a wonderful young woman.”

McCafferty told The Associated Press in an e-mail Sunday that some of her readers pointed out the likenesses.

“After reading the book in question, and finding passages, characters, and plot points in common, I hope this can be resolved in a manner that is fair to all of the parties involved,” McCafferty said.

She didn’t elaborate on what kind of resolution she was seeking. Messages left with lawyers at Random House were not immediately returned.

Viswanathan’s book tells the story of Opal, a hard-driving teen who earns all A’s in high school but gets rejected from Harvard because she forgot to have a social life. Opal’s father concocts a plan code-named HOWGAL (How Opal Will Get A Life) to get her past the admission’s office.

McCafferty’s book follows a heroine named Jessica, a New Jersey 16-year-old who excels in high school but struggles with her identity and longs for a boyfriend.

On page 213 of McCafferty’s book: “He was invading my personal space, as I had learned in Psych. class, and I instinctively sunk back into the seat. That just made him move in closer. I was practically one with the leather at this point, and unless I hopped into the backseat, there was nowhere else for me to go.”

On page 175 of Viswanathan’s book: “He was definitely invading my personal space, as I had learned in Human Evolution class last summer, and I instinctively backed up till my legs hit the chair I had been sitting in. That just made him move in closer, until the grommets in the leather embossed the backs of my knees, and he finally tilted the book toward me.”

Viswanathan told the Associated Press in an interview last month that the heroine bears similarities to herself: Indian heritage, New Jersey upbringing, Harvard and both she and Opal’s father drive Range Rovers.

There’s also a teenage boy in the book who has a striking resemblance to a classmate for whom Viswanathan had an unrequited crush. But the author said last month that those were just superficial details and the book is invented fiction.

Viswanathan is the youngest author signed by Little, Brown in decades, and the movie rights for the novel have already been sold to DreamWorks.

McCafferty is a former editor at Cosmopolitan who has written three novels.

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