It follows Opal Mehta, a nerdy Indian-American teenager who has dedicated her entire adolescence to academic studies, in the hopes of making it into Harvard University. However, despite her 4.0 GPA, during her admissions interview Opal is stumped when the interviewer asks her what she likes to do outside of studies. Realizing she has no life and little sense of identity outside of being a good student, and that simply getting good grades may not be enough to be accepted into Harvard, Opal sets out to immerse herself in American teen culture outside of academia.
The novel had a lot of hype around it prior to its publication, especially because the author was a Harvard freshman when she wrote it and light-hearted YA novels starring Indian-American protagonists were rare. Upon its publication on April 4th 2006, Opal Mehta made it onto The New York Times Bestseller List, there was a movie adaptation in the works and Viswanathan was already contracted for a sequel. Things were going well...
...Until less than a month later, people began noticing that Opal Mehta was very similar to other novels of its kind. And we're not just talking similar tropes and themes shared across the genre; we're talking plot points, characters and entire passages seemingly copied and pasted from other authors' works. Opal Mehta and its author were soon caught in the middle of a huge scandal, with the publisher Little, Brown and Company quickly pulling the plug on the book's release and cancelling Viswanathan's contract. To this day, Opal Mehta is largely remembered as a cautionary tale and intriguing case study about literary plagiarism.
Tropes found here include:
- Artistic License – University Admissions: Several reviewers have found it odd that the Harvard admissions office cares so much about Opal's social life; while Harvard and other tertiary institutions often do look at prospective students' extracurricular activities and so on, it seems unlikely they'd care much about how popular Opal is and whether she has a boyfriend.
- Bollywood Nerd: The book plays with this; Opal is Indian-American (born in India, lived in New Jersey since she was five), who has grown up aspiring to enter Harvard University and dedicating her entire life to achieving this. She has a 4.0 GPA, was her class' valedictorian and has won various academic awards. She's also very socially-awkward, unfashionable, knows little about popular culture, and has no real interests outside of studying. She believes women can be either smart or pretty, and has resigned herself to the former. When Opal is told by the Harvard admissions office that her lack of interesting traits outside of academia is hampering her acceptance, she becomes determined to shed her nerdiness and become 'cool'.
- Coming of Age Story: The novel revolves around a seventeen year old girl trying to figure out who she is as she prepares to head for college, including getting a makeover, going outside her comfort zone and falling in love.
- Foregone Conclusion: The title tells us that Opal succeeds in finding romance, growing beyond academia and getting "a life", with the novel chronicling how she does this.
- Girl Posse: The most popular and fashionable clique of girls at Opal's school are referred to as the HBz, short for "Haute Bitchez".
- In with the In Crowd: Nerdy, introverted Opal tries to become more glamorous, outgoing and integrated with the popular kids at school so she can get into Harvard.
- Old Shame: Priscilla regards some things in her nerdy past as this, such as naming her dog Pythagoras and wearing a My Little Pony sweatshirt every day in eighth grade.
- Protagonist Title: Opal Mehta is the titular protagonist and narrator of the story.
- Romantic False Lead: Student president Jeff is this for Opal; she spends much of the book crushing on him and gets close to having a relationship with him, only to realize Jeff is a jerk. She instead ends up with Sean, a boy who always loved her even when she was a nerd.
- We Used to Be Friends: Opal and Alpha Bitch Priscilla used to be best friends, but after Priscilla hit puberty and stating dating, she ditched her nerdy traits and stopped hanging around with Opal to pursue popularity. They start hanging out again as part of Opal's attempt to become 'cool' though Priscilla isn't much of a real friend due to her cattiness.