I remember vividly when Prep, by Curtis Sittenfeld, first came out. I was a junior in high school, and this debut novelist was called the next Joan Didion, Tobias Wolff, J. D. Salinger, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Knowles, etc. The Holden Caufield comparison was in every other review, but the main thing people were buzzing about was the pink and green ribbon belt on the cover.
Do not let the cheerful cover fool you, this is not a feel good teenage tell-all. The novel follows super smart Lee Fiora, the scholarship student from the Midwest, through her four years at a New England elite boarding school. The reader is exposed to the secret side of boarding schools through this outsiders view and chronicles Lee’s emotionally complex, but ultimately static, journey.
I understand the positive reactions to this novel. The dialogue is spot on and the writing is superb. Sittenfeld understand her character’s motivations and feelings. The intense desire to stand out and belong – and the way high school girls will compromise almost anything, including their dignity, to achieve either status.
Partway through the book Lee starts giving haircuts to all the boys at school. This makes her feel known and gives her a chance to talk to boys, but when her only friend points out that her eagerness is embarrassing you can feel the heartbreak.
Later similar situations arise, this time surrounding issues of sex. In fact, I think this was the book that introduced my mother to what she would call “the popularity of oral sex in you generation.” This is the most interesting part of the book, but I stand by my negative opinion of graphic and unpleasant sex scenes. The phrase “cheese or fish” still haunt me.
The writing is good, but the book suffers from being too real. Lee is almost as unpleasant as the sex scenes, and there is the same lack of growth (shameless pun!). She doesn’t really change as a character at all in four years. The book also lacks a coherent plot and enough tension. It is a pretty constant stream of whine, whine, moan, moan.
There are serious issues of privilege, race, and gender dynamics covered in the book. I think these are crafted to make you uncomfortable intentionally, but they are overshadowed by Lee’s more petty concerns.
I liked this book much better upon the second reading. As an aspiring writer I appreciate it more than I did as a teenager. I’m not going to tell you if you should read it or not read it, but don’t let the cheerful cover fool you – this is no feel good adolescent tell all.
Excerpt from Preppy Handbook (where my prep school was featured lol):