Monday, August 23, 2010

What it's like in prep school

Just looking at the cover of Prep and you'd think that this novel is chick lit. The pink and mint green belt is a giveaway, yes? You couldn't be more wrong. As a novel, Prep works in so many different levels: as an exploration of social class, race, and gender in contemporary America, as a coming-of-age account of a very misunderstood character, and as a wonderful story about love, friendship, and life in high school.

So there I said it: Prep isn't chick lit. If you're looking for clueless, rich girls who are out looking for the perfect bachelor, Prep isn't for you. (I have nothing against chick lit though. I read quite a few. It's just sometimes, you drown in all the cheesiness.) Still, if bookstores categorize this wonderful debut novel by Sittenfeld as chick lit, I would still recommend it to my chick lit-hating friends. Interestingly, I found Prep in the chick lit section of the bookstore.

So when I think of an American prep school, the image that comes to my mind has always been New Englad in the fall, like this:

Who wouldn't want to live in that area? It's so picturesque, idyllic, and highly conducive to studying, no? I do wonder why most prep schools in the US and also majority of the Ivy League institutions are in New England.

Prep is set in Ault School, a prestigious prep school in Massachusetts, and it's protagonist is one Lee Fiora, an angsty teenager who always finds herself like a fish out of water among the rich and spoiled upperclass kids. You see, unlike most of her classmates, Lee is on financial aid, and she came from a public elementary school, choosing to apply to Ault to leave her family and early childhood life in Indiana.

In Ault, Lee becomes a very mediocre student, which is a far cry from the girl that she was in Indiana, where she graduated with top honors. She doesn't go to the mixers, prefers to stay in room most days doing nothing, and barely makes an impression among her classmates and teachers in Ault. Since she can't really relate among the rich social circles that pervade in Ault, it's as if she has decided to be unremarkable even in academics as well. Our Lee has chosen to become an observer.

To be honest, the reader can feel very challenged to like Lee from the start. She's too awkward and it feels that, sometimes, she's asking for it. She's naive too in the ways of flirting and making out. When Cross Sugarman, the male prefect who's the object of Lee's desires, decides to have a fling with her, Lee becomes the personification of the sexually unaware teen.
He leaned down to reach for the hem of my nightgown -- it was white and calf-length, those were the kinds of nightgowns girls wore at Ault -- and as he started to push it up (was he planning to take it off me completely?) I stiffened.
"It's okay," he said. "I want to make you feel good."
"Why?" he repeated. "What kind of question is that?"
So I'd said the wrong thing; really, it had only been a matter of time. "Never mind," I said.
Sittenfeld writes beautifully. Through Lee's character, Sittenfeld has given us a portrait of prep school in all its polar extremes. We see how the education that you can get in a prep school can be truly exceptional. But we also see the ugly truth: teenagers taking for granted their money, status, and privilege. In Ault, the more the students don't talk about money, the more it becomes evident that money is what got them there. Heck, they don't even talk among themselves as to who's on financial aid; all you have to do is just look at their stuff. (If you're sheets don't have a thread count of 200, they'll assume that you're probably on scholarship.)

I've now decided to look for Sittenfeld's other novels. I already have American Wife, which is a bit of a novelization of the life of Laura Bush. I've heard rave reviews about it, and if it's half as good as Prep, it still would be a wonderful novel, I'm sure. Sittenfeld's characters are people you can relate because of their honesty. They speak to you. And you end up loving them, despite their flaws.

Read this book if:
  1. You've always wondered what it's like in prep school.
  2. You felt like an outsider in high school.
  3. You love Salinger and Plath, whom Sittenfeld has been favorably compared with.


Mrs. B. said...

I loved this when I read it years ago. Her other novels aren't this good actually.

Peter S. said...

Hi, Mrs. B. I loved this book as well! It's so satisfying!

Stepford Mum said...

Hm, sounds like another addition to my "Want-to-Read" list. :)

Peter S. said...

You have to read this, Stepford Mum! I'm sure you'll love this! Also, I think you can relate to this, as you went to boarding school yourself.

Lightheaded said...

Funny but I laughed when you mentioned finding this on the chick-lit section. Because yesterday I was at the NBS and saw that copy of Chelsea Handler's book (Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang) with other Young Adult books and it reminded me of your post on it :) Tsk tsk tsk.

Anyway, will get to this soon enough. I've a lot of other things to finish before I get to the shelves where my copy of this book is located :)

Peter S. said...

Hi, Lightheaded! I wonder if bookstores even bother to read the back cover blurbs of their stock before they place them on the shelves. Hmmm....

Mark David said...

Yes, I love the picture. So conducive to reading and writing :)

Peter S. said...

Hi, Mark! Indeed!

Sheila (Bookjourney) said...

I seen your post title on Ryans blog and had to see if you were reading what I thought you were reading. Yup. Prep. I am reading this too and am about a third of the way through.... I have heard good things about the book but so far I am not getting a good sense of what i think about Lee. Your review here gives me hope that there is more to this book then I have encountered as of yet. :)

Peter S. said...

Hi, Sheila! Yes, it's understandable that you feel that way in the first third of the book, since Lee's character isn't really that likable at the start.

GREYZ said...

Hi Peter. I just dropped by your blog and lovin' it. It's so seldom that I see male book bloggers, so I followed you. Looking forward to new posts. You can check my blog here - Cladestine Sanctuary - though it's not actually a book review blog but I'm thinking about it. Lol.

Peter S. said...

Hi, Greyz! Thanks for visiting my blog! You have cool blog, actually, it's way cooler than mine. Hehe.