Curtis Sittenfeld, Lee Fiora is just a typical teenage girl growing up in a middle class family from the American Midwest until she decides, for reasons neither she nor her parents may ever fully understand, to apply to several elite boarding schools in New England. To her own and her parents' surprise, she is actually accepted and wins a scholarship to one of the best: Ault School. So what choice does she have but to pack up, leaving behind everything she's ever known, and head east? Unfortunately, when she gets there, it's not quite what she expected from the glossy pictures in the brochures. Lee is used to being the brightest in her class, but at Ault, among the best and the brightest in the nation, she finds herself struggling to keep up. Academics are the least of her worries, however. Most of the students at Ault come from wealthy families, and Lee fears that her status as a scholarship student is glaringly obvious - branding her as an outsider. Because of this fear, Lee spends the majority of her time trying to blend into the woodwork, not making friends or speaking in class unless called on. Thanks to these efforts, Lee finds herself completely alone at the mall one holiday weekend and decides she might as well get her ears pierced; unfortunately, the shock of the process overwhelms her and she faints for the first time in her life. Of course, the most popular and gorgeous guy at school, Cross Sugarman, then comes to her rescue and saves the day. The two strike up an unlikely friendship for the day, and on the way home it seems like Cross may be interested in more than just friendship. Thus begins the crush that consumes Lee for her entire time at Ault. To her chagrin, Cross seems to have forgotten about this day - and Lee - for nearly a year, never speaking to her or even acknowledging her existence. This only serves to send Lee's tenuous self-esteem into a nosedive. Even when she finally manages to make one good friend, she continues to hide her constant unhappiness and feelings of ostracism from her family and everyone else around her. But Lee and Cross's story isn't over; he unexpectedly makes a reappearance in her life and, from that point on, nothing is ever the same.
Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld comes across as a college scenario in a high school mindset - a combination that doesn't really work. Lee's lack of self-esteem and surplus of angst is a stereotypical caricature of a teenager that, while it may be true of a handful, is by no means the norm. Her lack of self-respect and the unfortunate events she allows to transpire are horribly frustrating. While she does have her relatable moments, for the most part I found myself wanting to shake her by the shoulders till she came to her senses. It was hard to sympathize with a character who lets herself be walked upon by virtually everyone. The microcosmic universe of Ault School is almost as major a character in the story as Lee herself, and it is not any more appealing than the young heroine. The school is full of snobbery and superficiality; both the students and teachers would be right at home on a show like "Gossip Girl" (not praise in my world). Undertones of racism, sexism and classism run rampant throughout the pages of this novel. It seems that Sittenfeld is attempting some kind of social commentary, but she falls short of the mark. Perhaps if Lee had perceived the unworthy views espoused by her classmates, but personally abhorred them, it might have worked. But Lee accepts sexism and racism as though they are unavoidable facts of life, which essentially ends any sympathy one might have felt for her. Granted, there are moments when the veil is lifted and readers get a brief glimpse of the intended social commentary, but these fleeting moments are not frequent enough to counteract the rest of the novel. Despite all this, however, it was hard to put the book down - I wanted to know how the story played out. I think I was hoping that Lee would have some sort of redeeming revelation and the narrative arc would change course, leading in a more desirable direction. Alas, this never happened, and I walked away from this novel dissatisfied and even a little disgusted.
Note: This novel is not for very young readers. It's definitely Young Adult - I would say for readers 16 and older.
This novel can be purchased here.
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