I love those books you can’t put down. Recently, I read the remaining pages of Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld amid the noise of my son’s iPad, whirring and buzzing away. Several times I asked him to turn it down. No matter, I was rapt with these last pages, and pulled in completely for the book’s ending.
You may think an account about adolescent high school years a silly, trivial subject that can be chalked up as a formative, growth period. Think again. This is Prep. The story is told by Lee Fiora, a fourteen-year-old girl who leaves her home in Indiana to attend Ault School, a boarding school in Massachusetts.
As readers, we experience her entire high school education in her account from freshman to senior year. She is an outsider, plagued with the normal fears and insecurities of teenager, and in that light, the story could be anywhere. Yet, against the backdrop of an elite boarding school where classmates are groomed for the Ivy League and the interaction with students is constant, the drama is intensified.
The story is told from Lee’s perspective of a woman in her late twenties reflecting on her time there. Yet Lee’s internal drama is ever so present, many times I forget that the story is told in hindsight with a more adult perspective. Lee is intelligent, sometimes passive, driven by a neurotic, obsessive crush that can’t be fully realized. We experience this insular world in the context of heartache, complicated relationships with friends and teachers, newly discovered sexuality, and the unspoken code of race and class of her classmates. Students here know better than to “piss in their own pool,” something that Lee learns in a most painful way.
While the weight of events are heavy, Lee regrets that Ault is only temporary, that it will be over, and that eventually, life will be less about potential and more about the way things are, a fade out into adult life. Perhaps, high school is such an intense, tender period because the whole world awaits you with possibilities and dreams.
While this story line is enough to draw me in, it is Sittenfeld’s execution that plays the starring role. Her writing is phenomenal, and often I rewrote her sentences in a journal for future inspiration. Does anyone else do this? Certainly with her credentials as a graduate of Stanford and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she has had lots of practice; this is her first book. She writes with the seamless grace of ballerina, capturing the story with simplicity and ease. Often, she might describe a feeling or an experience so succinctly that I felt it might be something I’ve thought about, but have never been able to put into words.
I will leave you with a few sentences that I enjoyed:
In my whole life, Ault was the place with the greatest density of people to fall to fall in love with.
I might fail to be what the other person sought, but as a failure, I’d accommodate them completely.
There was something in the mildness of Cross’s tone and expressions that made me unsure how to react to the things he said. Normally, you could tell just by observing people when you were supposed to nod, or laugh, or frown in sympathy. But Cross’s expressions were all so muted that I’d have thought he was hardly paying attention to what we were talking about.
But sometimes speaking is so hard! It’s like standing still, then sprinting. I kept rehearsing the sentence in my head, examining it for flaws.
Life is clearest when guided by ulterior motives.
Anyone who has ever felt like an outsider will identify with this book. I thoroughly enjoyed Prep and highly recommend it. This is the second book I’ve read by Sittenfeld. I suspect she can probably tackle most anything with complexity and honesty, and look forward to more of her titles.