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'Everyone knew of Kaavya'

The Indian born author still earns admiration from teachers at her school.

india Updated: May 12, 2006 17:18 IST

Well before she became famous as the Harvard student caught lifting material from other authors, Indian-born Kaavya Viswanathan was the kind of person others noticed. Because she was so smart.

The Harvard University sophomore with the six-figure book deal honed her love of writing at the Bergen County Academies, a rigorous New Jersey magnet high school where even top students can be intimidated.

"She was such a good student everyone knew of Kaavya," said Kayleigh Wettstein, 18, a student in the school's Science & Technology Academy.

Viswanathan became even better known in recent weeks amid a cascade of plagiarism allegations against her novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life. Publisher Little, Brown and Company last week cancelled the reported $500,000-deal with the teen.

For Viswanathan, 19, the downfall is an abrupt reversal in a young life marked by accomplishments that still earn her admiration from former teachers at a school where only one in four applicants is admitted.

At the Bergen County Academies where the average college admission's exam score is 1,322, or 30 per cent higher than the state average Viswanathan attended the school's premier Academy for the Advancement of Science & Technology.

She edited the school's online magazine and earned numerous writing awards. After showing a story to a counsellor at a private college-prep firm, a meeting with a publisher was arranged and the strikingly pretty young woman emerged with a two-book contract.

Born in Chennai, Viswanathan and her family immigrated to Scotland when she was 3. They moved to New Jersey when she was 12.

Her neurosurgeon father and her obstetrician mother now live on a carefully tailored cul-de-sac of five sprawling homes in Franklin Lakes, one of the wealthiest towns in New Jersey.

Sporting 1,560 on the college admission's exam, the high-school valedictorian headed to Harvard, where she is completing her sophomore year.

The novel about a driven, high-achieving Indian-American teen trying to get into Harvard was published in March.

Within a month, student newspaper The Harvard Crimson pointed out similarities between dozens of passages of Viswanathan's novel and two works by Megan McCafferty, Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings.

Viswanathan quickly apologised for what she said was an unconscious imitation of books she read and admired years earlier, and Little, Brown planned to revise future editions.

But within days readers pointed out similarities between Opal Mehta and the works of several other writers, including Meg Cabot's The Princess Diaries, prompting the publisher to cancel the contract and withdraw the book from sale.

Neither Viswanathan nor her parents returned several phone calls seeking comment. But those who knew her as a high school student say plagiarism is at odds with the girl they remember.

"I saw an extremely bright and extraordinarily gifted 16-year-old with a talent for writing," said Katherine Cohen, for two years Viswanathan's counsellor at Manhattan-based IvyWise, where college prep sessions cost parents tens of thousands of dollars.