Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

31st Aug 2010

Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld Book Cover

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


  • YorubaGirl says:

    Aw, I really liked Prep! Lee is, as you say, one of the most unlikeable narrators I’ve read. But I liked that she was so unlikeable – I thought it made her (shudder) real. She’s 14, and seems as normal as any I’ve come across – at times precocious, irritating and arrogant. And I thought her disgust with her family was embedded in low self esteem, coupled with regular teen awkwardness. In case it isn’t clear, I really liked her in spite of these horrible personality traits!
    I went to a very good boarding school myself (all girls though), and at several points in the book, I had to put it down and just concentrate on breathing – Sittenfeld describes scenes which are so callously spot on…
    I was discomfited by the book too, but that’s part of its allure for me – I recommended it to everyone when I was done.

    • Jane Bradley says:

      Thanks for the comment! I see what you mean, and I do understand that including those negative personality traits is a risky move for an author and can make characters more realistic, but I just found it such a slog. To me, it felt like it was trying to replicate The Secret History. The narrator in that is so anxious about his behaviour and competing with his peers’ social status, but you still end up empathising with him. Lee just exasperated me.

  • Sara says:

    It’s funny.
    I can agree with everything you say, I found her incredibly unlikable, but that didn’t stop me from identifying with the storytelling, which kept me interested. Possibly what redeemed the character for me was how honestly she was written. Or maybe it touched a chord because I was probably just as conflicted and self-centered myself as a teenager. Not sure….

    • Jane Bradley says:

      Maybe, but aren’t all teenagers conflicted and self-centred? I don’t have a problem with those elements as such, I just found it unrealistic that there were so few redeeming aspects to her character. Maybe I got too side-tracked by the reviews comparing it to The Secret History; to me that’s a lot to live up to!

  • Kate says:

    I find myself pretty much with YorubaGirl on this one, in that as another boarding school veteran, huge sections of the novel felt like peeking back into my (hugely embarrassing) teenage diaries. I thought it was impressively, and sometimes uncomfortably, psychologically precise and it was fascinating for me to read a novel with such a relentlessly forensic examination of thought processes. I’d agree, though, that too much time in Lee’s company becomes a little wearing (and she is extremely dislikeable, especially towards the end of the book) but I didn’t resent the time reading it. I think, too, that any critical comparisons to The Secret History seem a bit of a head-scratcher…apart from being set in a New England academic environment, there’s really nothing remotely similar about them!

    If you didn’t like Prep, I would steer well clear of Curtis Sittenfeld’s second book, The Man of my Dreams which is a) an embarrassing book to be seen reading on the tube and b) incredibly boring and with another totally aimless protagonist. I think her third book, American Wife, is much, much better than both of the first two – it’s fairly thinly fictionalised version of the life of Laura Bush and as such manages to have a plot, which is a bit of a departure, and a good one, for her.

    PS I think the new design is absolutely lovely!

    • Jane Bradley says:

      Thanks for the comment Kate, and glad you like our new look! Maybe there was something about Prep that I missed, or maybe it’s that boarding school is such a formative and unique experience that readers who’ve shared those experiences find Lee easier to empathise with. As far as The Secret History comparisons go, several reviews of Prep I read (including one quoted on the front cover) compared them, which maybe set my expectations unfairly high!

  • Lindsay says:

    I completely agree with your review! Lee is one of the most unpleasant characters I’ve come across. I could relate to a couple of aspects of her personality, and I dont mind imperfect or even nasty characters in books, but there was something about her that was really vile. My own high expectations of the book actually came from reading American Wife by the same author, which is fantastic.

    • Jane Bradley says:

      Thanks Lindsay, from these comments it sounds like I might have been better off with American Wife instead!

  • Gail says:

    I’ve read Prep twice – both for work-related reasons. The first time I absolutely loathed it for all of the reasons that you gave – she was insular, shallow, ineffective and just plain drippy.
    But the second time I read it I really enjoyed it. Perhaps give it about six years and revisit?

  • BookElf says:

    American Wife is great, agree with Kate. Def worth a read.