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Sunday, March 19th, 2006


Prep: A Novel

by Curtis Sittenfeld

Snotty Peers and That Sense of Inferiority

A review by Joshua David Stein

The scores of most competitions aren't recorded in the light bulbs of a scoreboard, and no buzzer announces the end of the game. Most competitions take place outside the easily readable arena of sports with their immediately identifiable teammates. Most of the time, the stakes are much higher.

Lee Fiora, the teenage protagonist and narrator in Curtis Sittenfeld's first novel, Prep, essentially plays a solo game. The novel traces Lee's four years at a fancy East Coast prep school named Ault. Before winning a scholarship there, Lee lived with her family in South Bend, Indiana. Her father sold mattresses, her mother stayed at home. The family made loud, cheesy jokes and bickered in public. Class and money were never an issue for Lee -- although her family did not have much of either, neither did anyone else. Lee was, if not completely happy, at least comfortable. But this period of unselfconsciousness changes the moment Lee's family pulls up to Ault's flagstone gates in their rusty white Datsun. Mercedes abound and the game begins.

Teendom is a time of alienation. Gawky and gangly, your body betrays you by growing too quickly or, flatchested and/or hairless, by not growing fast enough. Neither pretty nor rich enough to fit in, Lee strives to blend in, to blur the edges of her personality enough to walk through the school corridors unnoticed. She is a loner by circumstance and not by nature. Prep's plot is no great shakes -- crushes crush, tests test, sex happens. The compelling struggle is surprisingly not between Lee and her wealthy classmates so much as it is between the inner Lee, who writes with subtlety and compassion, and the Lee who wants to fit in with those classmates. The two duke it out in small battles. When Lee rebuffs a potential date and current commissary worker in front of her peers, the writerly Lee loses. When Lee boldly confronts Cross Sugarman -- her golden ex-boyfriend -- the inner Lee triumphs. But as she heads off to the University of Michigan, just who has prevailed in the end is unclear. After all, when you compete against yourself, you're never fully a winner, nor wholly a loser.

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