Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld
31st Aug 2010
Since The Secret History is one of my favourite ever novels, I cynically suspected that not much could match up to it (not even its author, Donna Tartt, could replicate the success of her bestselling debut with her next novel, The Little Friend, despite taking ten years to write it). And although I would have loved to have been proved wrong, by the end of the book I was irritable, bored, baffled and frustrated.
The story of teenage Lee Fiora and her time at Ault, an exclusive Massachusetts boarding school, Prep follows Lee from her scholarship application to the school from small-town Indiana, aged fourteen, to her graduation several years later. Having turned up to Ault with an idealistic, romanticised image of boarding school after sighing wistfully over school brochures all summer, Prep relates Lee’s experiences in oppressive, claustrophobic detail, from dorm politics with neurotic room-mates to Ault’s rigid social structure and rituals.
Although for me, Prep did not have anywhere near the same strength of plot, pace and language that characterised The Secret History, there are some areas where the comparisons are valid. Sittenfeld’s descriptions of Ault are evocative of a similar hothouse of conflicting emotions, characters and insecurities, and there’s a similar sense of timelessness. The students at Ault are so consumed by the daily rituals, rivalries and politics of their tiny insular world, that it’s rare that the news and events of ‘real life’ get a look-in.
Like Richard Papen in The Secret History, Lee is an outsider, attending the school on scholarship, without the financial status and self-assured confidence her peers take for granted, and therefore constantly fretting about giving the game away by her behaviour or appearance. This in itself might sound tedious, but Lee’s anxious adolescent self-obsession on its own was not what made me so exasperated.
Put simply, she is one of the most unlikeable narrators I’ve ever encountered. The writing is rich, intimate and engaging, but Lee is by turns weak, precocious, passive, arrogant and apathetic. For the entire second half of the book, it felt like I was waiting for her to have an epiphany and reverse her repugnant behaviour. She is too lazy and apathetic to work on her own school assignments, but is bitter and resentful about her friends’ successes. She obsesses pathetically over clichéd heartthrob Cross Sugarman, and is ashamed and dismissive of her family (in a scene where Lee’s mother tries to talk to her about safe sex, she says “her taking about it her ratty robe made sex seem, frankly, disgusting…like the smell of someone else’s shit in the bathroom while you brushed your teeth”). Although an engrossing read, for me it was an uncomfortable one, and one which fell a million miles short of the media hype.
Think I’ve been unfair? Buy it from Amazon for £2.96 to see for yourself.
Post by Jane Bradley