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Saturday, January 8th, 2005


Prep: A Novel

by Curtis Sittenfeld

A review by Jill Owens

High school will forever be tossed around as a metaphor for the office, blogosphere, politics, or other sociological phenomena which bring us into physical or symbolic contact with a group of people we haven't actually chosen to be around. Curtis Sittenfeld offers a partial -- and typically astute -- explanation for the staying power of the stereotype in a description of Ault, the boarding high school in Prep:

I think, looking back, that this was the single best thing about Ault, the sense of possibility. We lived together so closely, but because it was a place of decorum and restraint and because on top of that we were teenagers, we hid so much....Depending on circumstances, a wild fact could be revealed to you, or you could fall desperately in love. In my whole life, Ault was the place with the greatest density of people to fall in love with.

The best thing about this novel, and there are many very good things, is its strikingly intelligent voice. Sittenfeld nails the neurosis of adolescence with an unusual and appropriate tone: the narrator, Lee Fiora, is past high school, informed with the wisdom of her present and independent adulthood -- but just barely. As in the above passage, Lee's sadness and amusement at her own younger actions are tempered by an honest nostalgia for a place that, although smothering and unfair, was also the most intense and alive she's yet felt.

Because Ault is a boarding school, I thought initially that Prep might have more in common with fictional college depictions than high school novels, but the students at Ault still seem fairly innocent --- and likable -- compared to, say, the maniacally destructive and hedonistic college students in Tom Wolfe's Charlotte Simmons. It's not that the characters in Prep aren't cruel, or cliquish, or otherwise engaged in the over-conscious behavior of adolescence; it's that Sittenfeld creates them as remarkably realistic teenagers, not abrasive cartoons. Over the course of the novel, it is impressive how many characters you feel you come to know, including fairly minor ones, through a few well-described facial expressions and a handful of overheard conversations. (The dead-on dialogue is another of the novel's highlights.)

Of course, Lee is the most analytical narrator that I have possibly ever read: think both incredibly intelligent and incredibly paranoid. Lee's observations and discoveries are a major pleasure of the novel; she sees and evaluates everything in terms of tension, intention, and potential within the space of a few seconds. (And what she doesn't notice, she's more than happy to imagine.) Her hyper-alert stance (which even she admits leaves little energy for academics, or much else) gives Sittenfeld plenty of detailed sociological terrain to explore.

Lee is a scholarship student at the superrich Ault, and her examinations of privilege, class, and, to a lesser degree, race, mark a surprisingly unobtrusive theme of the quiet ways money and its attendant language of symbols create a kind of (unearned) confidence. (One example: a fellow scholarship student identifies her by her plain, reversible bedspread.) Sittenfeld does not excuse Lee from her eventual materialistic leanings, either; Lee becomes more cruel in the process, particularly to her family, and her sharp mind doesn't let her forget she feels barely a whiff of guilt, at the time.

The portraits and insights in Prep are biting, astute, and, surprisingly, often sympathetic: "It occurred to me to take offense, but it was clear that Dede was only trying to be supportive. There was something guileless about her -- all her unpleasantness was close to the surface, like the earth's crust; once you got below it, she was strangely innocent." And Lee is a fascinating protagonist; incredibly self-conscious, shy yet blunt at the oddest times, she's wonderfully and enjoyably weird -- she flirts by pretending to be a pinball champion and tries to win points with the popular kids by cutting their hair.

Sittenfeld's depiction of complex relationships is welcome; her characters are nuanced, pathetic, hilarious, and, above all, genuine. Prep is an extremely talented debut from a writer to keep an eye on -- for her sense of humor and empathy as well as her sociological critique.

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