Reader tip-off writes last chapter in story of the teenage plagiarist

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The Independent Culture

The publishers of a book written by the acclaimed teenage novelist Kaavya Viswanathan were already nervous after she confessed to "unconsciously internalising" another author's work.

But now, a phone call to The New York Times by a reader who spotted similarities between Viswanathan's debut novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life, and another work of fiction - Can You Keep A Secret?, by the"chick-lit" author Sophie Kinsella - has sealed her fate.

Viswanathan's publisher, Little, Brown, announced yesterday that it had withdrawn the novel permanently, along with her two-book deal. It is unclear whether she will be required to return a £280,000 advance.

Until the Kinsella revelation, it had been hoped that a revised edition of the book could be released and the 19-year-old's fledgling writing career salvaged.

While Little, Brown's senior vice-president, Michael Pietsch, said the author would not be sued for breach of contract, the decision to cut ties is a stunning fall from grace for Viswanathan. Before the allegations she was groomed for mega-stardom. Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks studio acquired the film rights, although plans for a movie appear to have been dropped.

The Indian-born author, who lived in Scotland until the age of 12, won her book deal at 17. Her first work , which tells of a New Jersey teenager's attempt to get into Harvard University, received widespread attention when it was published in March.

But her reputation began to unravel after Viswanathan admitted having a photographic memory, which may have led her to "unconsciously and unintentionally" borrow language from Megan McCafferty's books, Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings. McCafferty's publisher, Crown, which is owned by Random House, contended that more than 40 passages had been copied for the Viswanathan book, after which it was pulled from the shelves.

Just after that original allegation, Harvard's newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, reported further similarities between Viswanathan's work and that of Meg Cabot's bestseller, The Princess Diaries, written in 2000.

Allegations were then made that a children's book written by Salman Rushdie, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, was also recognisable in Viswanathan's novel.

He said at the time, in an interview with an Indian television station: "I do not accept the idea that this could have been accidentally or innocently done. The passages are too many and the similarities are too extensive."

But the final straw, it would appear, was the tip-off to The New York Times, when Kinsella's novel, Can You Keep A Secret?, published two years ago, was drawn into the controversy.

She said: "I was taken aback to see versions of my words appearing in someone else's book. But it had already been discredited by the time I found out, so it wasn't as shocking for me as I am sure it was for Megan McCafferty. Now the publishers have acted so decisively, the story is really over.

"What I find heart-warming about this whole thing is that it was readers who spotted the similarities - not the publishers, or even the authors, but the readers."

Kinsella's novel revolves around the life of a young British woman who confesses her secrets to a man on a plane, only to discover that he is the American head of the company in which she is employed. The phrasing and structure of some passages of Viswanathan's work are alleged to be almost identical

But the allegations against Viswanathan may not end with her debut novel. A New Jersey newspaper, The Record of Bergen County, has now said that it was reviewing articles written by her while she was an intern at their offices in 2003 and 2004.

Eerie similarities

Sophie Kinsella (Can You Keep A Secret?)

The main character, Emma, comes upon two friends "in a full-scale argument about animal rights" and one says: "The mink like being made into coats."

Kaavya Viswanathan (How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life)

The main character, Opal, encounters two girls having "a full-fledged debate over animal rights", in which one of them says: "The foxes want to be made into scarves."

Kinsella's novel: Jack, the love interest, has a scar on one hand and "eyes so dark they're almost black".

Viswanathan's novel: Sean, the romantic hero, has a scar on one hand and "eyes so dark they're almost black".

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