Thursday, January 21, 2021

Book 268: Prep

"The big occurrences in life, the serious ones, have for me always been nearly impossible to recognize because they never feel big or serious. In the moment, you have to pee, your arm itches, or what people are saying strikes you as melodramatic or sentimental, and it's hard not to smirk. You have a sense of what this type of situation should be like - for one thing, all-consuming - and this isn't it. But then you look back, and it was that; it did happen."

Dates read: October 10-15, 2018

Rating: 8/10

Lists/awards: The New York Times best-seller

Every once in a while I'll be just doing something normal, sitting on the couch or researching something at work, and a memory of something embarrassing I did in high school will run across my mind. Though I graduated nearly two decades ago now, and I'm almost certainly the only person that still remembers some of these things, I'll still blush. I know adults like to tell teenagers that high school doesn't matter, but if we're honest with ourselves, I think a lot of us would admit that not all of those wounds from those four years have completely healed over.

Like many middle-class middle Americans, I've always been kind of both mystified and fascinated by the idea of prep school. What do the children of the wealthy get up to? It is exactly middle-class middle America (South Bend, specifically) that Lee Fiora of Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep hails from. She impulsively applied to the exclusive Ault School, outside of Boston, and her middle school grades earn her a scholarship. Once she gets there, though, she doesn't know quite how to proceed fitting into her new milieu. She feels awkward, uncomfortable, and very much like an outsider among her privileged classmates.

Lee does eventually make at least some friends, but continues to struggle both socially and academically as time progresses. She nurses a long-burning crush on Cross Sugarman, the most popular guy in her class. She becomes more and more estranged from her family and roots in the Midwest. She is desperately, achingly self-conscious about everything, and possesses no more ability to articulate exactly what it is she wants than to do anything as drastic as taking steps to get it. So when a national newspaper reporter is looking for interview subjects for a piece on what boarding school is really like and reaches out to Lee right before graduation, her decision to talk about her experience winds up being part of what colors the whole thing for her in retrospect.

This was often a difficult book to read. Not because it was bad (it was in fact very good), but because Sittenfeld is so good at recreating that agonizing mental experience of being an adolescent. Lee wants so much to be liked, accepted, popular, but she can't get out of her own way. She passively observes her classmates, so afraid to be thought of as annoying or stupid or dorky that she can barely interact with them even when they're receptive to her. Being trapped inside her head while reading reminded me so much of being trapped inside the darker corners of my own head during high school that I had to put the book down even when I was into it. It's brilliant in that way, and (appropriately, given Sittenfeld's own experience in prep school both as a student and as a teacher) in nailing the little nuances of the upper class. The names alone (Cross, Aspeth, Horton, Gaines) are dead-on.

While the atmosphere and writing quality are excellent, the book does have plotting and characterization issues that hold it back from being great. Sittenfeld tells Lee's story through just a brief stretch of time during each semester as she goes through school. It leaves a lot of gaps, and I found myself wondering what exactly Lee did each summer when she went home...the one time we follow her back to Indiana for a winter break we get a picture of some deep-seated conflict that I would have been interested in seeing explored more. And it leads to only getting little slices of characters that should be important, like Lee's best friend Martha. Despite the closeness Lee relates and we're clearly meant to understand, the reader gets almost no sense of who Martha is or the usual way in which they interact, getting just a handful of conversations between them. It's frustrating, and keeps the book feeling just-a-bit underbaked. It's an interesting, compelling book, and a clear indicator of significant talent in its author, but its flaws are real. I'd recommend this book, though it does have sexual content that might mean a more immature teen reader might not be ready for it.

One year ago, I was reading: Mozart in the Jungle

Two years ago, I was reading: A Tale for the Time Being

Three years ago, I was reading: An American Marriage

Four years ago, I was reading: Snow

Five years ago, I was reading: Creative Mythology

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