The one thing I regret is that I will never have time to read all the books I want to read.
--Francoise Sagan

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

I'm a sucker for boarding school novels in the same way I'm a sucker for southern lit: A Separate Peace. Looking for Alaska. The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks. I can't get enough of them...I'm sure it's because, on some level, I wish I'd been part of that kind of world myself...strolling around campus on a fall day in my plaid skirt and fleece vest, old brick buildings, well-manicured lawns, playing tennis or field hockey...or maybe rowing...sledding down snowy hills on cafeteria trays, skiing on spring break, playing Frisbee in the circle on a warm spring day...the traditions...the prestige. Boarding school books let me live vicariously...and for a few chapters, I thought I'd enjoy trying on Lee Fiora's life as much as Frankie's or Alaska's or Gene's or Finny's.

I could absolutely relate to her longing to go to a school like Ault. The comparisons she made between the Ault campus and her public school in South Bend, Indiana. Her obsession with the glossy school catalog. The way she spent hours pouring over old yearbooks...and I admired the fact that she made it happen for herself.

I could also relate to some of the teenage least early on...On page 15 she describes the beginning of her time at Ault: "...I was exhausted all the time by both my vigilance and my wish to be inconspicuous. At soccer practice, I worried that I would miss the ball, when we boarded the bus for games at other schools, I worried that I would take a seat by someone who didn't want to sit next to me, in class I worried that I would say the wrong or foolish thing. I worried that I took too much food at meals, or that I did not disdain the food you were supposed to disdain--Tater Tots, key lime pie--and at night, I worried that Dede or Sin-Jun would hear me snore. I always worried that someone would notice me, and then when no one did, I felt lonely."

But as I got to know Lee the book wore on...I became more and more frustrated with her. How can anyone be so self-absorbed? So paranoid? So horrible??? For so long? I understand that she would feel like an outsider initially...being in a new place...not knowing anyone...afraid the other kids would figure out she didn't belong...but then she had so many chances. People did reach out to her. Dede...Conchita...Cross...Darden...even Aspeth. If she had just been able to pull herself together and act "normal" for a few minutes...

I kept reading...propelled forward by the hope that things would turn out better for Lee than she expected (or frankly deserved). But in the end, she ended up more isolated than ever. And I can't help but think she wasted a wonderful opportunity.

Some critics have made the claim that Prep is about social class, race, and gender if it's the story of how the institution or the people at Ault kept Lee and others like her on the fringes; but I think Lee isolated herself. She's the one to blame. She wouldn't let anyone get close. She over-analyzed every exchange...every interaction.

I wanted her to put on a dress and go to a dance...get a cup of punch...stand around with the other girls who weren't a wallflower. After she went to the movie with Cross and his friends, I wanted her to say hi to him in the cafeteria. She didn't have to act like they were best friends...but at least smile and acknowledge him...give him some indication that she was interested. OR...if she wasn't going to make an effort to fit in...I at least wanted her to embrace life on the outside. Rebel. Dress like Conchita. Date the kitchen guy. But don't be so worried about not being popular...that you won't associate with anyone.

And the way she was with her parents. Wow! Of course...they could have made more of an effort, too. It was important to her, so you think they could have tried to be less weird.

Basically...Prep was like reliving all the worst parts of adolescence...without any of the happiest moments. It was pretty painful.

1 comment:

  1. I read this several years ago, so I don't remember details, but my journal from that time indicated that I liked it and related pretty well. I admitted not identifying with all her anxieties, but I recognized a lot of that angst in myself and in the kids I live with at McCallie. I especially liked the passage on my p.151 where she talks about girls always liking having boys around but boys preferring to merely talk, think, or fantasize about girls rather than have them there in the flesh. So true, I thought.