Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

March 18, 2010

prep Lee Fiora is a freshman at Ault, a prestigious boarding school located an hour away from Massachusetts. Unlike 98% of her classmates who are the scions of wealthy and powerful families, Lee is a scholarship student from South Bend whose father is a mattress salesman and whose mother is a teacher. Though nobody talks about money at Ault, there are certain telltale signs that indicate whether or not a student’s family is rich: brand-name clothes, floral print duvets, and paying for the $3,000 per year laundry service being just a few. Lee feels these differences acutely, and, when added to her extreme social awkwardness, immediately finds herself on the fringes of Ault society.

Told in the first person from Lee’s point of view, the events in the novel cover all four years of her stay at Ault School. Most of the action actually just takes place in Lee’s mind, however, because she’s so scared of making a fool of herself that she barely interacts with anyone else. Instead, she’s the kind of person who reads the school directory over and over again, memorizing people’s faces and names so that she knows who everyone else is even if she’s never spoken to them before. Lee’s inner dialogue is also filled with imagined interactions with Cross Sugarman, a handsome, popular boy in her class on whom she develops a crush from the first few months at school.

Lee does manage to make at least one good friend. This is Martha, a girl in her Latin class that she actually meets through a mutual acquaintance. Lee and Martha hit it off and end up rooming together for the remaining three years at school. This friendship makes Ault far more tolerable for Lee. Moreover, she’s finally able to verbalize all her feelings for Cross, which both serves as a release and intensifies the fantasies now that someone else shares in them.

The only major change in Lee’s time at Ault occurs during senior year when Cross inexplicably shows up drunk at her room one night and proceeds to make out with her. They then embark on an secret relationship that consists solely of these late-night visits. Cross alone decides when he’ll show up. When he does, Lee is in ecstasy. When he doesn’t, she frets and wonders if she has done something to piss him off. They end up having sex together, and though Cross treats her poorly, Lee always remembers him fondly.

It’s hard to say in what other ways Lee changed at Ault School. She emerged just as socially inept as when she arrived, didn’t parlay her association with the school into an Ivy League education, and barely kept in contact with any classmates after graduation. Indeed, it seemed as though the only thing she took away from that school was her memory of Cross, which she used as a measuring stick for all subsequent relationships.

Liked:

  • I enjoyed some aspects of Lee’s characterization because I was similar to her when I was in high school. Specifically, I remember poring over my yearbook all summer long, reading and rereading it so often that I too knew who people were even if we’d never officially met. In addition, I felt the same embarrassment at being from a LMC (lower middle-class) family when most of the kids at my school had rich parents. So whenever the novel touched on these points, I paid full attention.
  • I liked the way Martha and Lee’s friendship was depicted. They were true friends who mostly had each other’s best interests at heart, but there were times when jealously reared its ugly head. For instance, Lee was devastated when Martha was voted prefect, and Martha refused to be happy for Lee when she and Cross were doing their thing. I guess it could be argued that Martha realized Cross would end up hurting Lee, which is why she wasn’t happy, but since this was the fulfillment of a four-year-long fantasy, I thought a different reaction was called for.

Disliked:

  • I thought Sittenfeld’s portrayal of the general Ault environment was a bit stereotypical. I’ve never been to a boarding school, so this may very well be what they’re truly like. But at the same time, the school seemed like every other snobby boarding school that’s ever been shown in books or movies before this one.
  • What was up with the names of Lee’s classmates??? These kids had first names like Cross, Darden, Aspeth, McGrath, Aubrey, and Horton. There were a lot more weird ones, but I can’t remember them right now. I cannot stand pretentious names like this, even in fiction, so this point, minor though it is, bugged me to no end. Just looking through a list of famous Phillips Exeter alum from the ’90s and ’00s shows that the strangest non-ethnic names are Jedidiah, Win, Ketch, and maybe Sloan — hardly of the same level of ridiculousness as Sittenfeld’s choices.
  • Lee’s social paralysis was extremely annoying. Do people really freeze up as much as she did throughout the entire book? She barely changed at all, not where other people were concerned. Even when she was sleeping with Cross, which might have given her self-confidence a boost, she continued to shy away from contact with others. I don’t know; it just seemed more logical for her to become at least a bit more comfortable with these people she had been in school with for four long years.
  • There were vast stretches of very dull prose in this book, where the same scenes were repeated over and over again. Oh, look, it’s Lee being an outcast. Oh, look, Lee doesn’t know what to say when Aspeth addresses her directly. Oh, look, Lee’s not going to this dance or that party even though everyone else is. Oh, look, Lee’s going to sit in her room and agonize over acne scar removal while other kids celebrate the weekend. Yawn.

Rating:

Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld started off very well. I was immediately drawn into Lee Fiora’s world at Ault School, and couldn’t wait to see what the next four years had in store for her. But then nothing happened — again and again and again. I didn’t realize so much of the “action” would take place inside Lee’s head, ultimately rendering the novel dull and tiresome. I give it 2 stars out of 5.

3 Responses to “Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld”

  1. i was surprised by cross’ speech at the end.
    i think in a way, he kinda liked her
    but lee had zero self esteem
    so he acted accordingly
    after all he remembered their talk 3 years later and went to her

  2. Omg! I thought no one else would feel the same. I found Lee’s social paralysis EXTREMELY annoying. I can relate to her, as a high school student, since I’m shy as well, but jeez. There were so many opportunities for her to make friends. I pitied her throughout the whole novel. And I agree with camil, Cross probably did like her.
    2.5 out of 5. I would’ve stopped reading halfway if the book wasn’t for an assignment.

  3. Ok in the end I really wanted Lee to get Cross sugarman or Daren. I know Daren wasn’t a main focus but I thought it would be cool if there was in fact another boy interested. Cross should’ve been more of a gentleman and I still wish that that fight they had in the gym would have ended in a kiss and have them being boyfriend and girlfriends. I also think the new York times thing was stupid. I also wanted to know what happened more. Like her other friends.

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