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PrepReview - Prep
A Novel
by Curtis Sittenfeld
Random House, 2005
Review by Christian Perring
Apr 25th 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 17)

Prep tells the high school story of Lee Fiora from South Bend, Indiana who is on nearly full scholarship at Ault School, a boarding school for rich children in Massachusetts.† Lee arrives as a freshman and leaves as a senior.† She does not feel that she fits in when she arrives, and although she makes friends, she remains an outsider for her whole time there.† She goes through many of the usual problems reputedly experienced by teen girls: negotiating friendships, nurturing crushes on boys, crying or holding back tears when faced with problems, and worrying what other people think of her.† Since she is at a boarding school, she does not have to deal with her family much, and she seems distant from them even when she goes home.† Lee seems unhappy most of the time, and although she chose to go to Ault, her misery seems to stem from the school.† Her family does not have much money, and she is surrounded by wealthy self-assured people who have grown up familiar with unspoken rules that Lee does not understand.† She wants to fit in, but she never does.

The subculture of prep school will be unfamiliar to most readers, who if they are like me will have formed their main impressions from movies like Rushmore and Cider House Rules or novels like Tobias Wolff's Old School.† The story has a timeless quality, and although it seems to be set in the late 1980s or early 1990s, no one has email or cell phones.† Sittenfeld seems to be very familiar with this world, and she uses the character of Lee to depict it in a rather unflattering light.† The students are talented and will go on to be leaders in their chosen fields.† They do not consciously see themselves as more privileged or important than other people, but class plays a major role in the way that their perceptions are formed.†† The people are generally friendly and responsible, but Lee finds it difficult to relate to them.† Her father is in the mattress business and drives a Datsun, and she is embarrassed by him in front of her peers.†

Yet Prep is a perplexing novel because Lee is such an unappealing character.† As she narrates her story, she always puts herself down and retreats from others.† She remains resolutely ordinary, and excels at nothing except for cutting other people's hair.† Even as a senior, she does not play any part in clubs, sports, or other campus activities.† She does not even go to any dances.† She seems to spend her time sitting in her room reading Cosmopolitan.† It is hard to understand why she wanted to go to Ault in the first place, because she has no interest in taking advantage of what the school has to offer.† Readers may identify with her, but doing so, they will start to feel worse about themselves.† Lee is a perceptive observer of life around her in some ways, but she is extremely naÔve in many others.† Other people look down on her or just fail to notice her at all, and Lee does nothing to merit further attention.† Her best qualities are that she is thoughtful and behaves with some authenticity, and she rejects the facades and stupid priorities of the more superficial people around her.† However, she does not stand up for what she believes in, and she rarely voices her own opinion. Most of the time she stays quiet and bland.† She is not an interesting person.†

It is quite an achievement to base a whole novel around such an uninspiring character, especially since it is 370 pages long, with the unabridged audiobook taking Julie Dretzin 18 hours to read.† The plot moves quite fast, and holds the reader's interest.† However, on finishing the book, one is not so likely to be pleased to have invested time on it.† While the story does reach a climax with Lee's final week as a senior, it is not a very satisfying finish.† One ends up not really caring about any of the characters, and although Lee tells the readers what some of them are doing ten years after leaving Ault, one is not curious about them.† So while Sittenfeld has won high praise in her blurbs on the back cover of her first novel, Prep is a little disappointing.††

 

© 2006 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

 

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.


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