This morning I finished the 2005 NY Times Bestseller and one of the NY Times’ Book Review’s 10 Best Books of the Year (for 2005, let’s assume), Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld. I purchased a used paperback copy of this novel for half of the cover price about six months ago at the public library. This is what the cover of mine looks like, which is to say, juvenile and deceptive:
This contemporary novel joins a rather nice collection of novels about American boarding schools, including John Knowles’ A Separate Peace, N.H. Kleinbaum’s Dead Poets’ Society, and my favorite, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Except it doesn’t, because Prep does not have the makings of an instant classic. Ahem.
The story avoids YA classification because it is written in the first-person memoirs of our protagonist, Lee Fiora, as she reflects back on her days at the prestigious Massachusetts boarding school Ault (Ault School, not Academy, as she reminds us). Each chapter of the book reflects on each semester of Lee’s four years at Ault, beginning with her fall semester as an out-of-place 14-year-old girl from Indiana struggling to fit in among wealthy, ultracompetitive New Englanders. There’s plenty of typical coming-of-age material here: struggles to forge genuine friendships, a hopeless crush on the popular boy, anxieties about college applications, and a good heaping of teenage angst. So much angst. Yet on a deeper level, Sittenfeld includes plenty of deeper commentary about socio-economic and racial divisions.
While I found this book to be a fairly quick and engaging read, by the time I reached the ending, I felt it was ultimately a pointless book. Yes, you get to learn all sorts of interesting things about the macrocosm that is prep school (fun fact: Sittenfeld is an alum of elite Groton School, a boarding school in–where else?–Massachusetts). But the plot ultimately centers upon Lee’s development. Uhhh, what development? As far as I can tell, this girl remains just as insecure, whiny, boring, and ANGSTY upon her high school graduation day as she was the day her father first drops her off at Ault.
At first, Lee did seem like a very relateable protagonist, with her middle-class, Midwestern background. It made things interesting that she, once the brightest pupil in her public junior high, was now fairly unremarkable in a sea of overachievers. I just felt like the author never did anything to make the reader really like Lee, even after a 400+ page commitment of hearing every little detail of Lee’s mental debates of “Did she just compliment my sweater because she honestly liked my sweater? Or was she just saying that because she pities me and can tell this sweater is clearly from JCPenny and not from J.Crew? Does she know I’m a scholarship student?!? Did I mention my dad’s a mattress salesman and apparently I find this to be THE most embarrassing parental occupation in the world?!?”
Most of the book’s action is driven by others’ decisions to cause change in Lee’s life; nothing is accomplished by her own will, that’s for sure. It seems so unrealistic that a girl who managed to get accepted and score a scholarship to such a top school appears to have no ambitions or hobbies, except moping around and ANGST, SO MUCH ANGST. She doesn’t even have an endearing catchphrase like Holden Caulfield did. What a phony.
In the reading guide at the back of the novel, Sittenfeld says that she is aware a lot of readers were not a fan of Lee, even when the novel was still in progress. Her response:
I think Lee is realistic. At the same time, I don’t like to read a story, let alone an entire book, where I really don’t like the main character. So if someone feels like they hate Lee and can’t take it anymore, they should probably quit reading. Reading Prep is not meant to be punishment.
Thank you, Ms. Sittenfeld. I wish I had read this interview before reading the book or even purchasing it. Personally, I think Lee skipped the last exit for “realistic” and headed into “stereotypical ANGSTY teenager” territory. Yes, every teenager has moped out to mopey music before, but most are not this absurdly passive. For four years. Or 400+ pages, depending on how you look at it.
One thing I did like about the book was the realistic (and hence, minimalistic) dialogue between the high school peers, between the teachers and students, and between Lee’s parents and herself. Other aspects of the book were certainly realistic enough to be evocative of everyone’s high school years: the inexplicable fixation on who gets how many flowers as part of a Valentine’s Day fundraiser, meticulous attention to who is talking or dancing with whom at a school dance, and the general feeling that everything is deemed to be intensely more important than it would/should be outside the strange realms of high school and adolescence.
Spoiler alert: I think that was the point of the whole book. The things that matter so intensely to us as adolescents really don’t matter in the bigger scheme of things. But they are still important to experience in order to grow up, unless you are Lee Fiora, in which case…you will possibly remain an angsty, brooding teenager forever.
One more criticism! The names in this book, oh god, the names. Granted, the author, who is female, in case you haven’t picked that up by context clues, is named “Curtis.” OK, not her choice, right? “Lee” is a nice, simple name for a nobody girl from out west. I approve. The names of Lee’s prep school peers, however, are beyond pretentious. They are also frequently androgynous, which means you will spend much of the time reading the book trying to decide if you should picture such-and-such a minor character in a skirt or in a tie. Gates? That’s a girl. Aubrey? A boy. Aspeth? Girl. Cross? A boy. More importantly, who punishes their child with the name “Aspeth” or “Gates”? Poor things.
So in case you didn’t pick up on this, I was disappointed by this book. Not that I had very high hopes or anything, but there is a certain mystique for us public school grads surrounding the mysterious and competitive world of boarding schools. I can see why authors would choose a prep school setting for their novels, because it is this weird place where young people facing normal adolescent troubles are forced to grow up too fast–in a scary proximity to one another, 24/7, with minimal contact with/supervision by their parents. It’s kind of like the makings of reality show except, ironically, more real.
At least I finished another book out of my existing personal library!
Final rating: 2/5 – would not recommend
Want a better prep school fictional fix? Try Catcher in the Rye, maybe even Harry Potter because at least Hermione isn’t the least held back by her Mudblood (read: snobbish wizarding world equivalent of “middle-class Midwestern citizen”) descent or frizzy hair and large front teeth. You can also check out my reviews of an embarrassing number of
YA books books about adolescents on my Goodreads profile.
Or just watch Gilmore Girls for plenty of plaid skirts and witty dialogue. Watch Rory grow from a shy, mumbling small town girl to a yacht-stealing, marriage-ruining, Obama campaign-trailing socialite/journalist! (I still love you, Rory.) Now that’s the kind of character development I’d like to see in Lee Fiora. Also, Chilton is kind of like boarding school, except Rory gets to go home and eat take-out with her super-cool, young mom and sleep in Stars Hollow every night, which is way better.