Friday, April 25, 2014

Prep - by Curtis Sittenfeld

The discomfort I felt reading this boarding-school book was different from what I felt reading the likes of Testimony, or Looking for Alaska. It wasn't so much the risky behavior but rather the way that I could imagine my own daughter would relate to so many of the other experiences that our protagonist Lee Fiora has as a middle-class scholarship kid at an expensive New England prep school. I cringed (and laughed) when Lee explains how she learned not to open her family's care packages in front of any of her classmates when she found three packages of Kotex inside one of them, along with a note from her mother that "Kroger's was having a sale".  It was actually eerie how many things I read that I knew to parallel my daughter's experiences. As I read farther in the book my discomfort shifted inward when I realized how much I identified with Lee. Although I attended my local public schools for 12 years there are some teen experiences that are universal. Lee's constant over thinking, second guessing, and feeling that she didn't belong, and wasn't good enough probably were consistent with the experiences of most who read this novel. The sex scenes were disturbing in that the consent was so passive. Although her suitor did explicitly ask and Lee provided verbal yes, it was clear that she so desperate for the attention of the boy she had a crush on that she allowed him into her bed knowing that he did not love her, and that their relationship would never be anything except sex.

Sittenfeld is vague as to the timing of the novel. We can guess from some hints that it was probably the early 1990s. For instance "e-mail technically existed, but no one had it." Likewise no one had a cell phone, but rather shared a pay phone in a common area of the dorm. Some students had computers, but the library still had a card catalog. Like my daughter, going to boarding school was Lee's own idea. Unlike my daughter, Lee researched the schools at her local public library and sent away for catalogs, whereas my own child did all of her research online and simply sent us links.

Lee's time at the Ault School ends rather inauspiciously when she is interviewed by a reporter for the New York Times about her experience at the school. The article is published with the school looking less favorable than the administrators and trustees would have hoped. Lee informs the readers that she "aired the school's dirty laundry and there was proof". One only needs to go to a library and "find the microfiche from the month and year [she] graduated." Again, we don't know exactly when that would have been.

I marked a lot of places in this novel where the school library is mentioned, but there really is no action that takes place there. Lee meets people there, and passes by it a lot, and sometimes goes there to study. Like the dorms, and the dining hall, the library is part of the larger setting - what you might expect to find at a New England boarding school.

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