AUTHOR: Curtis Sittenfeld
PUBLISHED: Random House 2005
PAGE COUNT: 403 Pages
Prep kicks off a young adult whirlwind I’ve been caught up in recently. It’s a genre that gets a lot of flack, even though there are some truly talented writers who are able to connect with young readers.
I actually found Prep to be a challenging book to read–challenging in a good way. The pace was slow and required some investment, but Sittenfeld’s language is beautiful. I found myself relishing almost every sentence. But what really makes this book impressive, honest, both painful and funny to read is its narrator, an older Lee Fiora, who is the protagonist of the novel. There are moments where this narrative conscience melds with the Lee in the story, moments where it distances itself from her, and moments where it criticizes or defends or tries to make sense of the person the narrator used to be. Throughout the novel, it’s apparent that the narrator not only knows how Lee Fiora’s prep school experience will end, but also how she will turn out in later life, who she will become.
Lee is from South Bend, Indiana, where she never quite fit in at school or with her family. A glossy brochure for a New England prep school called Ault appeals to her–I think a lot of adolescent girls have romantic notions about uniforms and boarding school. She earns a scholarship and moves across the country to attend a school where she never quite fits in either. But being on the outside allows Lee to become a shrewd observer of the hyper-adolescent world of Ault. These observations were possibly made by Lee when the events actually unfolded, but readers are getting them now that they’ve passed through the lens of a narrator who has had time to process and analyze thoughts and feelings the character Lee Fiora hasn’t. This story of adolescence is told from the perspective of a narrator who remembers, keenly, what it’s like to live through it, which is why it’s so brilliant and so poignant–probably more for adult readers than readers currently in the throes of adolescence.
The most frustrating thing about Lee is her obsession with her own class and status at Ault. How to fit in is a concern most teenagers have. Let’s face it, we go through most of our lives figuring out where and how we fit in. But Lee’s obsession seems incredibly fake and self-interested. She’s afraid that everyone can easily detect that she’s a scholarship student, even though no one is really paying that much attention to her. She assumes that she can never fit in because she isn’t rich, an assumption that keeps her from forming meaningful relationships. This obsessive self-pitying also keeps her from recognizing that there are different types of privilege in this world.
Lee meets and becomes friends with Conchita Maxwell during freshman year, and it is Conchita who helps her begin to understand that money isn’t the only thing you need to fit in at Ault. Conchita is Mexican-American, a little dorky, and less than popular. Lee assumes Conchita is on scholarship like herself, and is unable to piece together the observations she’s made that would tell her otherwise. It’s not until Lee is riding in Conchita’s limousine on the way to eat lunch with Conchita and her mom that she realizes she was wrong:
Then I knew, I finally understood, that Conchita was rich. And understanding this confused everything else I knew about her. Why did she need to act weird? Why did she mention her Mexicanness so often, why did she talk about feeling like an outsider? If she was rich, she belonged at Ault. The equation was that simple. Being rich, in the end, counted for the most–for more, even, than being pretty. And yet, as I thought about it, it wasn’t that Conchita had ever hidden anything from me. Her elaborately decorated room, even her wardrobe, which was peculiar but not cheap-looking–these had been signs to which I’d turned a blind eye.
Money buys Conchita a lot at school, but it doesn’t buy her popularity. It doesn’t buy her acceptance. Lee isn’t able to understand this. Then what is important at Ault? What is the secret to getting the people who matter to like you? That’s what Lee really wants to know. Conchita accepts her, other students throughout the novel begin to accept her, but she still feels like an outsider. Perhaps it’s because she never could carve a permanent place for herself in Ault’s inner circle.