A dedicated coming-of-age story more detailed than most and set against the backdrop of a boarding school.
Publisher: Black Swan (Random House)
First Published: 2005
Date Reviewed: 12th July 2010
Prep is being been re-published by Transworld on 22nd July 2010 and features a stunning cover that conveys the atmosphere of the story well.
Lee went to boarding school at fourteen after doing all the research into schools herself and being drawn in by dreamy-looking prospectuses. But on formally joining the school she realises that all those images of happy-looking students aren’t quite true to life, at least not in the way she expected them to be. Perhaps being a scholarship student makes it difficult when everyone around you seems to have a money tree in their room, but as Lee comes to understand herself better she finds that most of her issues are solely to do with herself. Prep is set some time in the late 1980s or early 1990’s – around the time mobile phones first came into use, when cassette tapes outdid compact discs, and young people listened mostly to their parent’s music collection.
I came to choose Prep as my first Transworld challenge read due a similarity in situation between Lee and myself, and to my pleasant surprise I found that not only could I relate to Lee in that afore-mentioned way but in many others; a great deal of what she experiences are things that young people face as a whole so I will discuss these in detail.
Firstly however, I’m going to talk about the setting. Sittenfeld presents us with Ault boarding school and it’s as picture perfect as Lee’s preconceptions suggested. Reviewers have likened the book to Sweet Valley High and Sittenfeld’s writing to Salinger and Plath – I myself think of Mallory Towers, The Templeton Twins, and St. Trinians, the books I knew of as a child thanks to the older generation, which I enjoyed myself. Although there is a lot of time given to Lee’s personality there is enough here to enjoy the book for the school’s sake, in other words if you’re wanting to read something akin to any of the books I’ve just mentioned you won’t be disappointed. A great deal of the first third or so of Prep is dedicated to student life as Lee settles herself in the secluded world she’s entered.
“What am I writing?”
All of us fell silent, a loaded, electric silence. “I know where you live,” Alexis suggested.
“I see you when you’re sleeping,” Heidi said.
“I smell your blood,” Amy said. “And it smells” – she glanced at Madame – “tres delicieus.”
“We will not bring the French into this,” Madame said.
The catalyst for everything Lee experiences is her nervousness, her inability to accept the fact that she is as good as everyone else and that really no one’s out to get her, she’s just overly paranoid. It’s said that if you want something bad enough you’ll get it and that applies to negative things too – Lee is a normal person but her personal worries and issues sometimes lead her to open up cans of worms that hadn’t previously existed. Of course as soon as this happens she revels in her false belief that she was right all along, which is sad. You feel you want to root for Lee, especially when she finally gets a boyfriend, but you can’t help feeling frustrated at the way she handles things.
Nevertheless this frustration is good – because it’s the frustration that our parents quite likely felt for us, so now of course we, as readers, through Lee, can pick up on times when we chose the wrong path in our own childhood – and it’s also good for readers around Lee’s age (while she is at Ault – the story is told as a first-person recollection years later) because they might be able to pin-point where their own lives are the same at this present moment and do something about it before they have time to look back with regret.
Sittenfeld deals with loneliness in a way that is subtle but completely effective. Clearly she remembers her own school life well and has applied plenty of her own knowledge in order for her readers to relate to this fictional character seamlessly. Lee thinks she’s lonely and that she has no friends but in fact there are many people she meets and gets to interact with, including one of her class’s most-sought-after boys. Most people feel alone at some point but what Sittenfeld has done is to hint that all that loneliness put together, as in everyone’s loneliness, makes for a happy and full life. You have to be willing to accept invitations when you get them rather than be put off by the person’s own loneliness. We all get lonely but somehow we’ve developed this mindset that if a social activity is proposed to us by another person, and that person is themselves lonely, then our taking up of their offer is shameful and embarrassing. In these moments of possibility, of not being alone, we are unwittingly scared by something that has already consumed us – we are, in effect, scared upon seeing a reflection of ourselves in another. But it always looks worse when you see it in someone else.
A lot of the lesser-acknowledged issues observed in the book are conquered via short dialogues and quotations. Consider the following:
Little’s blackness made her exist outside of Ault’s social strata. Not automatically, though, not in a negative way. More like, it gave her the choice of opting out without seeming like a loser.
This is true for many different social groups, but it hasn’t been fully realised yet. When you’re on the outside looking in, and even sometimes when you’re on the inside, you don’t always see the advantages to being uncool when it’s related to something that’s difficult, nay impossible, to change.
In such proximity to Cross, I stared at the floor, feeling clammy and unattractive from having been outside with Conchita.
This quotation backs up the idea of us being lonely and put off by other’s loneliness as well as explaining where exactly Lee’s place is at Ault. Lee actually straddles both “cool” and “weird” social groups but she doesn’t understand that. As in Little’s case, Lee is in a position of advantage but her mentality towards being seen as uncool means that this isn’t realised. The quotation also explains that as soon as people make it higher in society (Lee was talking to a popular student) they like to pretend that their less high acquaintances (usually the ones who got them there in the first place) don’t exist to them.
This leads into:
There are people we treat wrong, and later, we’re prepared to treat other people right.
We hurt people, dump our friends, but these relationships give us practise for next time – and we’re probably practise for other people ourselves anyway.
And lastly, in relation to the wider-world:
“Why do you think so few students receive financial aid?”
“We don’t add diversity to the school”
Be sure that race is another issue featured heavy in Prep and that again, Sittenfeld knows how to tackle it efficiently.
Something negative I would like to point out, in relation to Sittenfeld’s writing, is her reference to “spazzing out”. It’s the kind of thing many authors say but in Prep it is particularly bad because not only is Sittenfeld using the term but she’s saying that if you spaz out you can’t have boyfriends. Considering all her other political commentary, this is very poor.
Aside from the disability awareness issue however there is little else to find fault in. Sittenfeld’s writing style is on the whole beautiful and the words slide across the page effortlessly, though she should have considered more her word order at times. I’m not sure if it’s a new American convention but sometimes her sentences are clunky and read like gravelled driveways rather than smooth ones. Lastly, many of the names she uses are… not names. Horton is a surname, not a first name; Gates is the term for the doors that separate a person’s home from the road, and Cross is the mood you’re in when your sister yanks your hair out.
Speaking of Cross and who he is to Lee, I should talk about the romance in the book. There’s not much of it, but it’s in keeping with the rest of the story and with Lee’s personality. The finer points are explored in keeping with Lee, so that although the period of intense focus on it is specific to a situation others may not have experienced, it suits the book well.
It often seemed to me that boys preferred to be by themselves, talking about girls in the hungry way that, I suspected, they found more gratifying than the presence of an actual girl.
In addition to Lee’s crush, sexuality as a whole is explored, the damning consequences of taboo lifestyles and stress brought out into the open. While they may be less of a taboo today and widely accepted an explanation is apt and warranted here and it reminds you how different we are as a society now.
Something that isn’t nice about Lee is when she feels unable to be there for her friend who’s just been elected prefect. Lee doesn’t want to be there for her because she’s worried about having to reassure her. Her jealousy at finding out that her friend is popular and the fact that she (the friend) has been given something that would’ve changed Lee’s own life makes her unable to be happy for her. This is the extreme result of Lee’s nervousness and it puts everything else into perspective. In truth Martha is the same as Lee herself and in having her present Sittenfeld shows us the other side of the equation, what you can do if you’re aloof from others to gain respect, what Lee could have done. Martha is Lee’s opposite in the ways that it matters to this story.
In essence, Lee is a regular teenager who doesn’t take opportunities and then wallows in her self-pity. In essence she’s not simply a misunderstood character at all, but what she is is a reflection of real life for many people and an illustration in how we should conduct ourselves. She is a good main character because we can relate to her either all the way through the book (and see her flaws) or some way through and then react with distaste to how she handles situations and be able to use this distaste to set ourselves on the right path.
Prep is a fantastic look into life as a teenager, focusing in depth on issues that many other books cover only as a subplot or general part of a character. In writing it Sittenfeld has provided the reader with something not unlike a manual on how to get yourself out of unwanted situations and how to deal with social interactions when you’re just finding your feet amongst your peers. It doesn’t really matter how old you are, there’s something here for everyone and everyone could benefit from reading it whether they actively apply it’s “teachings” to their life or not.
I received this book for review from Transworld Publishing, Random House.
July 13, 2010, 1:20 pm
I received this book for review yesterday and so I skimmed through this post, but I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it.
Charlie: I’ll look out for you review so I can link to it on here later :)
July 14, 2010, 1:03 pm
I’m glad you enjoyed this book as I’m taking part in the Transworld reading challenge too, and this is one of the books I requested. I’m still reading my first challenge book, Second Hand Heart, at the moment but I’m looking forward to reading Prep too. I’m intrigued by your comparison with Malory Towers – I used to love those books!
Charlie: Hi Helen :) My next book will be Second Hand Heart, which likewise I’m looking forward to! There is quite a bit in Prep that could compare to old boarding school books, mostly at the start, and the good thing is that even when it’s more modern Sittenfeld’s writing style keeps the atmosphere the same.
August 23, 2010, 10:48 am
It’s interesting that you reference points for this book are other children’s books. I totally agree. Prep just isn’t a grown up work. It’s immature and bitter and confused and riddled with unhappy sex. Just like a real teenager. Shame the writing isn’t terribly good or the lead sympathetic in the least.