Sunday, April 18, 2010

Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

In Prep by 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.

Premise: 2/5
Plot: 2/5
Characters: 2.5/5
Writing: 4/5
Setting: 2.5/5
Overall: 2.6/5

This novel can be purchased here.


Dr. Bill (William L.) Smith said...

Thank you for an interesting review.

Bill ;-)

Hope you'll check out my book giveaway:

Lea said...

I hated this book, I'm always glad to find out that I'm not the only one.

The Bookish Type said...

Thank you both for reading and commenting!

@Lea - I know exactly what you mean. After seeing the New York Times seal on the cover, I was afraid I was the only person on the planet who didn't like it - but looking at the reviews on Goodreads, it seems like a lot of people found it less than ideal. I'm glad to have comrades in my disdain! =)

Lauren said...

That's a pity - when I started to read your review I was wondering why I hadn't heard of this one, but now I think I know. Thanks for your honest review.

blueicegal said...

great review! we shuda known girl i mean come on the cover it self is being dissed forget the book, poor belt cover thingy lol keep it up:D

R.E. (Renée) Chambliss said...

Prep depressed me. Lee was so unlikeable and it didn't seem like she grew much throughout the course of the novel.

But I thought Curtis Sittenfeld did a good job of conveying all Lee's angst and social awkwardness. That's why the novel made me so bummed out, because the character, Lee became such a real person and I just wanted to shake her and tell her to snap out of it!

Prep really resonated with my sister, however. She said it was the most compelling book she'd read in a long time.

Have you read Sittenfeld's most recent novel, American Wife? That's quite a book! I liked it better, although the subject matter is controversial so it's going to strike a nerve for some people.

The Bookish Type said...

Thank you all for reading and commenting!

@Lauren - I know what you mean. It seems like a great YA premise...but it just failed. I hope my review saved you from a painful 400 pages! ;-)

@blueicegirl - I know, right?? They totally pre-packaged this thing, and I think that really accounts for its popularity, more than any real merit.

@R.E. - It was depressing! She definitely came across as angsty and awkward, but not in a way that was very endearing. I feel like it was the portrait of a stereotypical teenage existence, and one that I'm not sure really rings true (I'm not that far removed from teenagerdom myself, and it was NOT like that for me :-)) Is your sister a teen? I haven't read American Wife, but it sounds interesting - a bit like a grown-up version of Prep. I'll have to give it a chance sometime, and see if Curtis can redeem herself! I really appreciate your comments - they're so insightful! Thank you!!

LadyViolet said...

Great Review , when I read it last year I thought along similar lines and only rated it 2.5 out 5 and wondered how I was going to get back those hours of bizarrely fixated depression (I think I read it in one sitting or at least very few). I couldn't understand how other people rated it so highly. Good thing it was only a library copy I read not one I shelled out for - that would really have sucked

Cari said...

I have this book I guess I'll leave it at the bottom of my to read list. Thanks!

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