Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld is a coming-of-age-tale in which no coming-of-age seems to actually happen, a bittersweet tale of youthful angst without the sweetness, and a messy tale of first love and sexual awakening in which these seem mutually exclusive and misguided. Perhaps it is strange or unfair to begin a review through negations – after all, shouldn’t the novel exist on its own terms rather than be a round block shoved into the square holes of trope and genre? The thing is, though, the edges of trope and genre hover around Prep, never quite settling but never quite rejected or subverted either.
Narrated by Lee Fiora, a bright midwestern teenager seduced by a catalogue into applying for a scholarship to a, well, preppy prep school in the East (somewhere near Boston), Prep is heavy on atmosphere and light on plot. It doesn’t take Lee long to realise that her brains and application are not special among a school of people expecting with good reason to end up at Ivy League universities, or that she is something of a misfit among the children of diplomats, bankers and captains of industry. Lee folds in on herself; she learns the codes of her new society and hides her awkwardness and intensity from her effortlessly entitled and smoothly casual classmates, develops a crush on popular athlete Cross Sugarman (naturally), and becomes a sharp-eyed observer from the sidelines.
Much of the joy of this book is when Lee’s hawk-vision is focused on puncturing the motivations of others rather than dwelling on herself; Lee’s insecurities and introspection get a bit old. Sittenfeld does, however, capture the sense that teenagers (and some adults, *ahem*) have of getting lost inside their own heads and dreams, where the trivial is monumentally important and the important is often elided; occasional intrusions of someone else’s perspective serve to remind that the narrator is unreliable. The narrative is in overlapping vignettes rather than strictly linear progression – this adds to the dreamlike feel of the book; Ault seems a place apart from time, drifting unanchored somewhere off the East Coast on a sea of privilege and desire.
I could end by describing Prep in negatives; it’s like The Secret History without the murder, it’s like The Sense of an Ending but with girls in it, it’s like Gossip Girl without the soap opera, it’s like Dawson’s Creek but without Pacey. And yet it’s not a bad book; it’s mostly compelling, it’s enjoyably satirical at times, and Lee is mostly an endearingly muddled heroine. It could do with being about a quarter shorter, though.
“Do you like it here?” I asked. This was the problem with me – I didn’t know how to talk to people without asking them questions. Some people seemed to find me peculiar and some people were so happy to discuss themselves that they didn’t even notice, but either way, it made conversation draining. While the other person’s mouth moved, I’d try to think of the next thing to ask.” (14)
Sittenfeld, Curtis. Prep. New York: Random House, 2005.