Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

My copy of Prep announces, in two separate places, that it is a bestseller: once on the actual book itself, above the title and a gushing blurb from the Boston Globe, and once on the Borders sale price sticker, where the font is only slightly smaller than that of the sticker’s advertisement that the book is only $8.99. A good portion of readers around the world are strongly influenced by bestseller lists and the mysterious allure that clings to books that have attained that bestseller status. There’s definitely logic in this; the more people that like this book, the more likely a random individual is to like it as well. Popularity is telling, and there’s no denying that bestseller books which are regularly bashed as bad apples spoiling the bunch–The DaVinci Code, Twilight, and so on–have something that draws people to them. It may be a fast-paced plot or a story with identifiable wish-fulfillment, and there’s nothing wrong with reading books for these reasons. Still, though, and this is where I mark myself as a snob who has yet to shake old habits, there’s something distinctly uncomfortable to me about being seen reading a bestseller. I freely admit that this is my damage, not the book’s; I also feel slightly awkward or conspicuous reading YA or SF/F in public. It doesn’t matter what I would enjoy more, but the fact is, I feel smarter and more legitimate if someone catches me reading Anna Karenina on the plane than, say, Wild Magic (putting aside the sheer awesomeness of Tamora Pierce). Nevertheless, I have been working hard to shake these feelings, because being popular or a genre novel or non-“literary fiction” does not make a book any less legitimate or any less something to read, and enjoy, and analyze.

I say all this (woo woo, all aboard the Tangent Train!), but with Prep it was a moot point. Both times I’ve read it so far, it has been nearly from start to finish, absorbed in it while curled up in a nest on the couch or in bed while dishes pile up and other work begs to be done. I completely understand how this book became a national bestseller. If Prep is one thing, it’s thoroughly addictive. “Addictive as M&Ms,” if you believe and agree with the Boston Globe blurb. Me, I find M&Ms somewhat limiting in their addictiveness, unless they’re the peanut butter kind, and would more accurately describe the book (at least for me) to be “addictive as roasted yam slices.” That doesn’t quite have the same ring, though, and while a beautiful shade of orange, yams aren’t as bright and colorful, or as indicative of youth, as M&Ms, so the comparison feels like a deliberate and apt one on the part of the Globe’s reviewer.

What makes Prep so addictive? Part of it, I think, is the boarding school setting. It’s extremely immersive, moreso than a regular high school where there’s home and the mall and friends’ houses–Prep has that, but because it’s a boarding school, those settings that pull away from the 24-hour immersion of Ault become themselves bigger steps, more significant. Speaking of significance, it’s interesting to me that a lot of reviews that came out when it was first released mentioned Prep as being “light on plot.” To me, the slightly meandering, episodic feel is nostalgic. When I think back on my high school years–granted, with much less clarity than grown-up Lee looks back on hers–it’s with that same feeling, of this-is-a-story-that-happened and this-is-another-one. It’s striking to me how small things make or break a young person’s world; I was really surprised when I actually paid attention to the plot of “A Christmas Story” for the first time in years recently and realized how small, how trifling wanting a rifle for Christmas and not getting it seems now. But even so, our worlds aren’t often made up of huge intergalactic wars or battles between good and evil. We struggle through the small things and they become significant in our day, and that’s what the plot of Prep feels like to me: a young woman finds that her world increasingly revolves around one thing–a boy–and when she finally gets what she thinks she wants, she finds it isn’t as good as she cracked it up to be.

Some of the parts of the books that stood out the most to me were her interactions with her parents. I don’t know if I just have a thing for parent-child relationships in books, but whatever. What made them significant for me what the level of expectation her parents have for her, and how angry and disappointed her father is when she talks back and treats them disrespectfully during their visit to Ault. The second time through, all I could think was, isn’t that how teenagers are expected to act? what’s the big deal? It seems like such a small thing, like something her father should write off as a product of youth and rebellion and hormones, but somehow the most obvious and insignificant-seeming things don’t seem that way when one is in the middle of them, instead of looking in from outside.

Lee herself, too, is part of what I think makes Prep so absorbing. I found her largely unlikeable and then, in the same breath, undeniably familiar. She’s something of an uncomfortable mirror, and I imagine this is be the case for most people, with very few exceptions, who pick up and read Prep. (Bookshelves of Doom recently made a side-note in a review about how most, if not all, YA main characters are outsiders or isolated in some way from their peers, and although Prep is not strictly YA–is it the sex that separates it? its supposed aspirations towards “literary fiction”? the length?–that’s definitely the case here. May the god of nerds strike me down for making blanket statements, but most avid readers were a bit weird as children, and that isolation or outsider status creates an immediate connection between the reader and the main character that is harder to forge if the main character is the most popular girl in school, or someone wildly rich and successful–and then, characters like that usually experience a fall that makes them infinitely more identifiable.) Most of Lee’s problems stem from herself and her perception of how she thinks she should be, or how she thinks others think she should be, and it’s somewhat painful to see her go through that. Everything she does is so self-conscious and over-analyzed, and yet she seems surprisingly unconscious of the totality of her own actions. Which, really, seems exactly like a lot of teenagers I’ve known. Maybe the familiarity is what makes Prep so fascinating? Either way, I’d recommend it as absorbing, somewhat painful, somewhat cathartic, and very interesting.

Notable quote:

“I’d always loved the part in movies when a project, or even a person’s whole life, came together: the montage, set to uplifting music, where you saw the spunky multicultural kids set aside their differences and fix up the old man’s house, straighten the hanging shutters, pain the outside, mow the lawn, and weed the flowerbed; or the twentysomething woman who finally lost weight, dancing through aerobics classes, mopping her brow while she rode a gym bike, with a white towel around her neck, and then at least she emerged from the bathroom all cleaned up, bashful but beautiful (of course, she had no idea how beautiful), and her best friends hugged her before she left for the date or party that would be her triumph. I wanted to be that person, and I wanted the in-between time when I improved myself to glide by just that smoothly, with its own festive sound track. But to really learn precalculus would be laborious and miserable.” (p. 262-263)

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2 thoughts on “Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

  1. I’m such a sucker for books set in boarding schools. I don’t know if I will ever get tired of that setting. I mean, really. Really.

    Re: your “thing” for parent-child relationships. You might want to look up Bleeding Violet, actually. At the Read-In, we all pretty much agreed that at the heart of the book is the relationship between Hanna and her mom. As for the moment that you’re describing, I think you’re right on the mark when you say that being in the moment is just so different than being outside of it. But I will offer one possible explanation for his anger, which is the turmoil and general confused feelings that come from raising a teenager. Add to that the distance (both emotional and physical) of the boarding school that separates parent from child. So he comes to Ault, having missed and idealized Lee for months (absence makes the heart grow fonder?), and she is just so *disappointing*. He reacts with anger, which is just a personality thing (though I do think men in our culture are taught to a certain extent that anger is really the only manly emotion and so they reach for it more often than women).

    Your description of Lee as an “uncomfortable mirror” is so apt. Also, this: “Most of Lee’s problems stem from herself and her perception of how she thinks she should be, or how she thinks others think she should be, and it’s somewhat painful to see her go through that. Everything she does is so self-conscious and over-analyzed, and yet she seems surprisingly unconscious of the totality of her own actions. Which, really, seems exactly like a lot of teenagers I’ve known.” JUST SO SPOT ON. So spot on, in fact, that I really can’t add anything.

    Painful, cathartic, absorbing… Yup, sounds about right.

    • Boarding schools are so exotic, aren’t they? I feel a little ashamed but I definitely enjoy the boy/boy boarding school sub-sub-genre, which is so played out and cliched but somehow still so appealing!

      That book sounded really interesting so it’s been on my TBR list since you read it, although it will still probably be a while. XD I can definitely see what you say about her dad; I think she goes a neat place with showing how Lee’s father is a fallible person too. What I wrote were mostly my feelings of getting caught up in the story and thinking about the cliches of teenagers–how do you not see that coming from a mile away? But I was thinking as a reader instead of as someone to whom it is actually happening.

      :D I’m glad you agreed, I was a little worried my rambling wouldn’t make much sense. This book just grabs me by the metaphorical balls every time I pick it up (or at least these two times I’ve read it), and then I wonder why I was quite so absorbed by it, so it was good to explore my feelings on that front.

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