Friday, September 29, 2006


Prep, Curtis Sittenfeld's 2005 book about a young girl from Indiana who goes to a high school at a Northeast boarding school. Although the book is supposedly fictional, the first person account reads like an autobiography. Indeed, Sittenfeld herself is from Cincinnati and attended a prep school outside Boston like the one in the book.

Lee is an unlikable character; she's shy, so she rarely reaches out to people, but she has an expectation that they should reach out to her. She broods and sulks; she develops a crush on a schoolmate and then never speaks to him. She finally makes a friend and then ditches her for the friend's friend. She doesn't even do well in school and is continually scraping by with a C average. She's agonizingly self-conscious, like I admit I was in middle school and high school. I remember it's crippling effects and it's not pretty, just as it isn't in Prep. So I was willing to give Lee a wide path. I gave her a generous space to come into her own. But, ultimately, following Lee though four years of high school becomes onerous – she doesn't grow or learn from her mistakes, she never comes out of her judgmental stage, and she continues to brood in her room, never taking a chance or expanding her little world. Of course, most teenagers eek out their existence for at least a few years, and I think that's what makes the first half of Prep (and books like The Half-Blood Prince, or The Catcher in the Rye) so interesting, that nearly everyone can relate to this type of character. But also, nearly everyone (including Harry and Holden) eventually grows out of it! The sheer drudgery of Lee's existence becomes burdensome. Like Dawn Wiener in Todd Solondz's Welcome to the Dollhouse, observing Lee's miserable life becomes painful and embarrassing.

Whether that aspect overwhelms the book's positive characteristics or not may be a matter of choice. Sittenfeld's writing style is appealing and often beautiful and insightful. Even if you find yourself loathing Lee (as I did) you must admit that Sittenfeld perfectly captures the pre-teen and teenage girl. The few interactions of Lee with her Indiana parents provide much needed access into Lee's personality – her quick-tempered father and passive mother are briefly seen but well-developed characters. I wish that we had been treated to what it was like for Lee on summer breaks and holidays as she inevitably became alienated from her family.

I recently read Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities, by Alexandra Robbins – another book about isolated societies and mostly-wealthy people living together at school. Prep carries a feeling of authenticity that Pledged (non-fiction) reinforces. Neither a recommendation for or against this type of life-style, Prep makes boarding school seem, for the most part, very attractive, it's only the main character whom I'm not interested in knowing.

No comments: