Thursday, July 15, 2010

Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

Prep satisfied everything that the last two books I read have not satisfied. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, even if it wasn't exactly what I thought it would be.

My husband noticed me reading a new book the other night and asked what I was reading. Based on the quotes on the cover I replied, "A female version of A Separate Peace.” My answer was largely tongue-in-cheek but having finished the book, it was actually an extremely apt description. Prep is the story of a fish-out-of-water and her four year experience at an elite East Coast boarding school. From the first day Lee Fiora does not match the stereotypical description of a boarding school student of which she is hyper aware. Throughout the novel her comfort level waxes and wanes and she makes friends, learns to navigate academics, and explores sexual relationships. I think there is something of Lee in every girl.

So many of the conundrums Sittenfeld places on Lee resonate with modern teenagers - whether in boarding school or at home. As I read I found myself personally relating to the angst Lee felt. But I also found myself reflecting on my friends as we traversed the high school issues. One friend in particular suffered from so many of the self-doubting characteristics of the main character that I felt as though I were in her head and I began to understand her better.

I had friends who went to boarding school and while some of the challenges were undeniably unique, I don't think this book speaks exclusively to that audience. I found myself thinking back to college classmates who had gone to boarding school and middle school friends who chose boarding school. In some ways they always seemed a world apart; they had an experience to which I could hardly relate. Yet, I found myself thinking about the intense dynamics of dorm life - even if Lee suggested college dorms were quite different from high school ones. And if nothing else I have read a distinct canon of boarding school literature which addresses similar themes across the ages.

I loved this book as much as I disliked The Secret History. To some that may seem antithetical - after all they are both "academic/literary fiction" - situated in the insular worlds of rich East Coast academia. So I think it only fair to explain the differences in my mind. Neither book is particularly plot driven. Yet I found this one so much more engaging because it was about the development of a teenage girl on an individual and extremely personal level. Interestingly, in the Reader’s Guide Sittenfeld says,

I consider plot above everything else except character. There’s nothing I hate more than some book that’s all just exquisite language. That’s so boring….I very consciously think about plot and say, I want there to be a twist here or I want there to be a surprise.

To me that is indicative of the difference in the two novels. Moreover, Sittenfeld felt like a real person in her interview whereas Tartt annoyed me in hers.

The other main difference between the two stories was the characters. I could empathize with Lee’s plight and I could understand her angst. She was flawed and at times annoying, but generally I would describe her as a character I enjoyed reading. Tartt’s characters were so flawed as to be unlikable.

I read Prep in less than 48 hours. It was a book I thought about and couldn’t wait to pick up again. Now that I’m done I still find myself think about Aspeth and Dede and Martha. I am curious how these individuals lived and worked together. More than anything longevity of thought is a sign of a great book.

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