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May  15

Fresh Look at the Old School

Prep, by Curtis Sittenfeld. Random House, New York, 2005. 406pp., $21.95

Prep_2 I must confess that when this debut novel was published and became an immediate best-seller, I found the initial critical praise too hyped to be credible, and stayed away. However, my recent trip to the bookstore in search of my next subject was specifically with the intent to write about a first book. So I chose this story of Lee Fiora, a fourteen year old girl from South Bend, Indiana, who goes off to board at the elite Ault School in Massachusetts. I am pleased -- indeed, honored -- to have found out that Prep is far more than just a promising first novel; it is an accomplished and profound work. As I write these words, Ms. Sittenfeld is not yet thirty years old. I must say from the outset -- and this declaration usually comes at the end of a book review -- that I cannot wait for her next offering.


There are two major levels upon which Prep succeeds. The first is the evocation of New England private school culture. This is hardly original terrain for American fiction, and yet, Ms. Sittenfeld makes it fresh, because she allows us to see the school both as her young protagonist sees it in the moment; and then again, as Lee reflects upon her experiences at various times when she is older. At one point, Lee will be sitting in English class and we listen to her very modern, adept interior monologue, acerbically critiquing the teacher/intern's wardrobe. And then, after class, when the teacher compels Lee to read aloud an essay she would not read in front of the class, we are treated to the quintessentially stilted and "sincere" prose of an adolescent. And then, Lee poignantly and compassionately recalls her teacher in later years and wonders what ever happened to her.   

Neil_baldwin_7 Which leads me to the second, even more fulfilling level of success -- the replication of teen-age angst and insecurity to such an intense extent that every few pages I had to put the book aside in deference to the author's sheer emotional virtuosity. These are basic, raw emotions -- Lee is certain that she has no friends; that she is "invisible" in a crowd of freshmen; that nobody will want to room with her sophomore year; that the boy she has a crush on has no idea how she feels; that she will never get off the substitutes' bench on the lacrosse team; that she will never have eyebrows that are thin enough; that her parents, especially her father, are the most mortifying visitors on campus...and on and on.

Ms. Sittenfeld sustains the disturbing hum of this incessant refrain of doubt, insisting that Lee is not meant to be an idealized heroine. She is a deeply-flawed girl, capable of being gossipy, mean, and hurtful. As we follow the slow and painful course of Lee's coming to terms with herself and the myriad of other beautifully-formed and complicated young people in the hothouse environment of Ault School, readers will be bound to wonder how we ourselves managed to live through that fraught period of our lives. I know that Lee Fiora would not agree with my final recommendation that this is a book for our children to read, as well. She would probably make a face and say something like, "You have no idea...how could you possibly assume that, after having only lived with me for a few hundred pages...?"

Neil Baldwin's new book, The American Revelation, is in bookstores now. He is also the author of Barron's Study Guide to A Separate Peace.

May 15, 2005 in Good Reads by Neil Baldwin | Permalink


I was floored by this book. I felt as though the author had gotten ahold of an old diary of mine and read it- then written about it. I never realized (as silly as this sounds) that the words "teenage angst" actually pertained to what I went through. I thought I was the only one! There were many times I would catch myself laying the book on my chest- and just thinking about what I had just read. It was amazing and I want to read it all over again!

Posted by: DEE | Aug 2, 2005 6:40:12 PM

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