Thursday, December 30, 2010

Prep—Welcome Back to Adolescence

I have spent this week cavorting with old high school friends, and to recover from a rush of memories and too many late nights, I spent four hours today trying to chronicle the infinitesimal changes I saw in my friends, but mostly how these perceptions really reflected how much or how little I have changed since high school. It was a trying task, I deleted, erased, cut and pasted and what have you until I finally flung away the computer in disgust and went to the library.

On whim I picked up Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep, a book that had sudden exploded across the benches and hallways of my high school when I was a junior. The white cover, bisected by a pink ribbon belt, made me think chick-lit and I decided then and there never to read Prep. Not because I hate chick-lit, I love it, but because if I was going to be caught reading a rom-com, it would be rom-com no one had heard of, so I might be able to pretend it was something heftier.

Prep is something heftier, and better, absolutely spell-binding despite its heft. In an author interview Curtis Sittenfeld discusses the importance of melding plot and Literature, capital L intended. Prep is proof that she practices what she preaches. I began Prep over dinner and did not move until I finished hours later.

Prep is the story of Lee Fiorna, who leaves her home in South Bend, Indiana to attend a ritzy East Coast Boarding school. Prep chronicles Lee’s four years at boarding school, alienation, friendships, a tangled romance. But this is more than a boarding school story, it’s a finely wrought bildungsroman that details the bruises of adolescence with sharp insight that is a little too painful to call humor.

Lee is wickedly observant and as insightful as she is awkward. She is not always likeable, but she’s relatable, a girl with a genius for observation who is paradoxically paralyzed by what she observes.   

“I often messed up with people, it was true, but it rarely happened because I was reading them wrong; it was because I got nervous, or because I could see too clearly I was not what they wanted. And in fact, it was in falling short that I truly excelled. I might fail to be what the other person sought, but as a failure I’d accommodate them completely—I could be obsequious or truculent, sad or earnest or utterly silent.”

A sober portrait of reality
Sittenfeld has some lovely technical touches—fourteen year old Lee’s essays read like essays by an average fourteen year old (not a feat many writers can pull off), dialect and realistic dialog—but the best part is how effortlessly she keeps the reader turning the page. Actually, Sittenfeld turns the page for you, she keeps you wide awake through breakfasts in the cafeteria, spell bound English class, and salivating for more when the lights go out.

Yet, it is midnight now, and I have a headache. I have spent the past four hours growing up, going from fourteen to eighteen as a painfully self-conscious and deeply introspective girl. If I have any complaint, it is this, if adolescence was painful, if all too often I did not know what to do or say, if I often wished to be someone else, there was also a bright hilarity about adolescence, moments of stupid joy: running up and down the hallways whooping, coaxing teachers to emerge from the stiff masks of their professionalism, laughing with my friends in the cafeteria until our stomachs hurt and we wheezed.

If we were depressed, we were also dreamers, if we behaved impossibly we also allowed ourselves to believe in the impossible.

Sittenfeld captures the exquisite pain of growing up, the complicated humor, but none of the joy.

Photo Credit:
Real! Owl by the incomparable S. Dorman


  1. As it turns out, I did read Prep in high school, even though I, too, thumbed my nose at the "genre."

    I read it too long ago to remember anything substantial. I'm almost tempted to read it again from your review, but I don't know if I want to familiarize myself all over again with the angst of teenage drama. Safer to say that I concur with the general strokes of your review.

    And if adolescence isn't portrayed as painful to correspond with the majority of real adolescence and a this-too-shall-pass message, what else can teenagers look forward to in adulthood? The irony is of course if life never gets past the uncertainty experienced then, but in that case, it's good to remember the message. This too, shall pass.

  2. @Willa
    The funny thing is, the day after I read it, I couldn't remember what kept me hooked, and I had no desire to reread it figure out why because the thought was like emerging into a dark murky swamp.

    That said, I get a lot of pleasure thinking over the book in my head and how good she is at crafting.

    I never thought of books like this as a beacon of hope, but yeah, that makes sense to me. While life has definitely acquired uncertainties, its lost others, and on the whole I'm happy 14 has passed.

  3. I just remember picking up Prep, and thinking like you that it would be sunny chic lit and becoming thoroughly depressed and hurt as the character as I read. Basically, I didn't like the book. But, now that I've seen a few more years, maybe I should look at it again

  4. I hope you recover well from those late nights.. I know how it feels.

    Btw, the book you review looks good. I always like the kind of characters of Lee. =)

  5. @Jessica
    I remember you reading Prep. It's funny, I do not think I will ever read Prep again, but I want to read everything else the author has written, and even though I didn't like the book, bits and pieces of it stuck with me for days afterwards.

    @Miss Reith Jerevinan
    Oh I'm well on my way to recovery, thank you. :) I do recommend reading it, especially if you're looking for something you can't put down (e.g. you're traveling and need something to pass time time).