Alum’s novels set in alterna-Yale

It’s Saturday night at Eli University. Normally you’d eat dinner at the Calvin College dining hall, but it’s already closed, and let’s be honest, the food is kind of gross anyway. Instead, you head down the street to Lenny’s Lunch, where you order a hamburger — no ketchup, of course — and a bag of chips. You’ll need your energy for the Saturday Night Dance Party at Froggie’s later.

If Eli University sounds a lot like Yale, then Diana Peterfreund ’01 has done her job well. Peterfreund is the author of “Secret Society Girl,” published in 2006, and its sequel “Under the Rose” — both subtitled “An Ivy League Novel,” to drive home the point — which are the first two volumes of a projected four-book series. Peterfreund said she strove to faithfully represent the Yale experience in the “Secret Society Girl” books, which are centered around narrator Amy Haskel’s induction into a secret society called Rose and Grave.

The books — set in a parallel-universe New Haven where students have drink nights at Tory’s and choose between the many Thai restaurants on Chapel Street — have received favorable reviews in publications like “The New York Observer” and “Booklist,” although Kirkus Reviews panned “Secret Society Girl” for “banal dialogue and a wimpy heroine.” Few Yalies said they had heard anything about the novels, which are being translated into Russian, Portuguese and Chinese, and most said the idea of a series of books about societies sounded silly, uninteresting or both. Several said the premise reminded them of the 2000 movie “The Skulls”.

In fact, Peterfreund said “Secret Society Girl” started when she and fiance Daniel Peterson ’02 were packing up their apartment in Florida to move to Washington, D.C. and the “The Skulls” came on TV. Peterfreund said she and her college friends had always been amused by the movie’s dramatized depiction of the real-life Skull and Bones, and used to play a game that involved taking a drink whenever the movie got something wrong about Yale or societies.

Seeing the movie again, Peterfreund said, inspired her to start a novel about the real-life experience of a student in a secret society, despite Peterson’s concern that a book about societies stripped of the cloak-and-dagger conspiracy theories would just be boring.

“I definitely tried to write with honesty about the Yale experience and with honesty about secret societies,” Peterfreund said, although she admitted that in some scenes she might have “sexed it up a little bit.”

The main drama of “Secret Society Girl,” narrated by caustic Eli University junior Haskel, revolves around the decision by the members of the Rose and Grave to tap girls. While Rose and Grave is based largely on Skull and Bones, the most famous of Yale’s secret societies, Peterfreund said she chose to change the name of the organization so she could take more liberties with details.

Perhaps the most obvious change is that, while “Secret Society Girl” is set in the present day, the real Skull and Bones opened its tomb to women in 1992. But many other details about societies in “Secret Society Girl” ring true. Peterfreund said she knew she had succeeded in painting an accurate picture of society life when a woman came up to her at a book signing and said, “Who’s been telling you this stuff?” Unlike other pop-culture depictions of societies, Peterfreund’s Rose and Grave steers clear of worldwide conspiracies and demonic rituals, focusing instead on what she called “the actual drama of college life.”

Peterfreund said she enjoyed incorporating some of her favorite memories of New Haven establishments into her books. At various points in “Secret Society Girl,” Peterfreund name-drops High Street, the Stacks and Tory’s Restaurant, where students “sing songs and drink toasts out of giant silver trophy cups.”

Haskel belongs to Prescott College — “once known as the legacy college” — and her bedroom is modeled after the room Peterson had as a junior in Davenport. But Peterfreund remains faithful to her college, the much-maligned Morse, insisting that the grounds are “gorgeous,” the dining hall is “beautiful,” and anyone who disagrees “is smoking something.” In “Under the Rose,” Peterfreund’s former stomping ground appears, thinly disguised, as Edison College.

Rachel Pasternak ’01, who lived with Peterfreund in Morse for two years and shared an apartment with her post-graduation in New York, said Peterfreund included not only familiar places in her books, but also familiar people. Although many characters are composites, some are wholesale depictions of Peterfreund’s college friends.

“I was happy I’m not in the book,” she said. “My mom reads the books. I don’t need her knowing my college business.”

As an undergraduate, Pasternak said, Peterfreund was “a lot of fun.” She was known both for her chatty, open personality and her eclectic mix of interests.

Friend Mackenzie Baris ’01, who met Peterfreund when they were both freshmen in Directed Studies, said she remembers eating long lunches with Peterfreund in the Hall of Graduate Studies dining hall where they would have “the kind of conversations you go to Yale wanting to have.” As a student, Peterfreund had “broad and fearless interests,” Baris said, that ranged from writing for the Rumpus to singing in the a cappella group Out of the Blue.

When asked if she belonged to a society while at Yale, Peterfreund coyly answered, “What do you think?”

And while the books she now writes are more Bridget Jones than Balzac, Peterfreund studied literature at Yale, graduating with a double major in literature and geology. Literature professor Pericles Lewis said Peterfreund was an astute reader of literary theory, remembering in an e-mail how she once sang Shania Twain’s “Man, I Feel Like a Woman” to his class to prove a point about gender performativity.

After graduation, Peterfreund moved to New York City shortly before the September 11 terrorist attacks. She has worked at various times at Pottery Barn, as a maid at a hostel in Australia and as a cover model for romance novels that show her embracing shirtless men under titles like “Secrets: The Best in Women’s Erotic Romance, Volume 13.”

Her worst job, Peterfreund said, was working the phones at an insurance company. She remembers crying in the bathroom after telling people, “No. Yeah, you’re not going to be covered for your cancer treatment.” Since then, her one requirement when looking for a job is “Don’t be evil,” she said.

Peterfreund is now devoting her energies to her writing career, and is under contract to write two more “Secret Society Girl” books, after which she has plans to move onto a young adult series about killer unicorns. Defensive about her proclivity towards genre fiction, Peterfreund said too often such novels are treated with unnecessary close-mindedness. She herself is a fan — especially of romance, which she said exposed her to occasional derision while she was at Yale.

“I definitely dated guys in college who thought it was like, inappropriate,” Peterfreund said. “There was definitely a certain pressure when I was at school that unless you were going to be Salman Rushdie … then you shouldn’t write.”

As if to prove Peterfreund’s point, most Yalies asked about “Secret Society Girl” said it was not the kind of book they would choose to read. Erin Cawley ’08 said the books seem aimed at 11- or 12-year-olds who are too young to be reading them, and Zoelle Egner ’10 said the lime green cover and dramatic jacket blurbs makes it seem like “Secret Society Girl” is “trying too hard.”

Several seniors in the Davenport Dining Hall said there is nothing interesting enough about societies to sustain a series of novels, and many of them laughed at the “conspiracy of money and power” described on “Secret Society Girl”’s back cover.

“I don’t think there are a lot of conspiracies of money and power at an undergraduate level,” Matt Pirkowski ’08 said.

Michael Sterzel, an employee at the Yale Bookstore, said that while the book is “not a best-seller,” customers have been buying it. According to Bookstore records, three copies have been sold in the last four weeks, and 10 in the last 26 weeks.

And Peterfreund has her devoted fans, including a reviewer on Amazon.com — where “Secret Society Girl” has 23 customer reviews and an average of four stars — who called it “a fun, lighthearted look at college.”

Peterfreund said she hopes her sense of fun emerges in her novels. She said she has been surprised by how people outside the Yale community give far more thought to societies than most Yalies — but while press materials for the books play up the secret conspiracy angle of the plot, Peterfreund considers her books comedies above all else.

“The idea of a bunch of 20-year-olds dressing up in robes? That’s just funny,” she said.

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