On “Prep” by Curtis Sittenfeld

Courtesy of Amazon.com

Admittedly, it took me much longer to read Prep than I anticipated, which is probably due to the fact that I approached it like any other YA novel. This novel, unlike most others, is much denser. Not always to its credit.

But as a whole, it’s a book I wish I’d known about when I was in high school. Like Lee Fiora, though, I don’t think I would have had the appropriate capacity for self-reflection that some of Sittenfeld’s sharpest insights require. Indeed, so much of what Lee dissects from her high school experience mirrors my own reflection of my past in prep school. Even the minutiae and small ticks of the novel’s teenagers–those of a similar educational background as my own–ring eerily true.

I admire Lee’s self-restraint, especially in the way she deals with her romantic feelings toward Cross. I cringe when I think back to how I made a fool of myself pursuing people at that age. She pragmatically spares herself from embarrassment, which, I suppose, is partially a product of her own will and partially a product of her inability to fully integrate into the Ault community.

Sittenfeld’s subtle and well-formed characterizations of Lee’s classmates at Ault are particularly praiseworthy. She strikes a delicate balance with several of them that must have been challenging to maneuver. They are equally conscious of their wealth without ever committing the faux pas–as Lee does–of discussing it and the fact that other students around them don’t share the same luxuries. But Sittenfeld never shies away from the fact that Lee’s classmates are only tangentially aware of poverty, race, and socioeconomic isolation.

The novel’s ultimate outcome–despite the roughness of the plot–was extremely powerful, and the conversation between Lee and Darden Pittard near the end was one of the most fascinating and satisfying encounters in a YA novel that I’ve ever read.

There were so many places in this novel where I had to stop and reread passages because they were so nauseatingly similar to the way I–and many other people I imagine–felt in high school and as an adult looking back at those years, which were often awkward, numbing, and as confusing as they were for Lee.

But so much of it was equally frustrating. It’s difficult to criticize the attitudes of Lee and the other Ault students because they exist as they exist within the confines of the novel, and their feelings are magnificently rendered, so discussing my issues with them seems futile.

I do feel, however, that the plotting and overall pace of the novel made it difficult to get through.

Sittenfeld divides the chapters–if you want to call them that–into the semesters of Lee’s time at Ault. The time leaps within chapters are sometimes jarring, and I found myself questioning some of the choices Sittenfeld made in including certain scenes and not expanding others. And, to be honest, the novel’s tone in some sections could easily be characterized as plodding. To be fair, though, I can’t imagine there being a better setup for the way Sittenfeld chooses to have Lee tell the story.

I guess what I’m getting at is the idea that Prep is like that unsettling onslaught of memories you get from the past that you aren’t quite prepared for as an adult and or only just now starting to make sense of. It wreaks havoc on the minds of the deceptively well-adjusted when those memories of isolation, shame, momentary happiness, and ennui bundle together to make you question whether or not you’ve really grown at all since high school.


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