Monday, July 17, 2006

20. Prep

by Curtis Sittenfeld

Perhaps one of the greatest things about Prep was that it reminded me how good it is to be reading again. “So this is what it’s like,” I would think as I spent every chance possible reading the book and thinking about the characters when the pages were closed. “This is why I do what I do.” Besides reminding me how much I love reading, one other thing the book made me realize is that I should, perhaps, never force myself to read something I don’t like. There just isn’t enough time in one’s life to spend on mediocre or uninteresting books when great reads sit in waiting on your shelves. Of course, I’ve stumbled upon some amazing stories by reading things I would usually never pick up, so the theory isn’t quite sound, but maybe it’ll help me learn when to quit a book unfinished and not feel guilty about it.

Prep is a coming of age story, through and through, and you know I love a good coming of age story (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Dandelion Wine are my two most favorite books and both focus on the tenuous transition from childhood to adulthood). I’ll admit that I didn’t quite know what to think of Prep when it came out because, judging from the cover which we all know we do, it looks kind of like chicklit. And judging from its popularity, it seemed even more that it wouldn’t be a particularly substantial story. But I was still interested in reading it and the fact that it was nominated for the Orange Prize didn’t hurt.

I absolutely loved it. I can see a lot of people saying they loved this book because Lee Fiora, our narrator, is them or was them as a teenager. That’s not exactly the case with me, but I can say that I think Lee is the person I was always afraid I really was. Lee has a lot of the typical teenage problems with self-esteem and embarrassment over her family, so when she decides to go to Ault, a boarding school hundreds of miles away, the problems are only exacerbated. Do you remember all the drama that went on in your college dorm? Imagine all of that at high school level and you’ll get an idea of what Lee has to deal with. She makes friends with a minority (important to the character, I’m not just pointing it out) who steals from the other girls and later a girl who’s so rich her family had a professional decorator style her room and she spends as good deal of time obsessing over a boy who, as far as she knows, is barely aware of her existence. It isn’t that Lee isn’t a smart girl or is even entirely gauche, but she’s constantly second guessing herself and wondering whether she merits any attention instead of standing up and making herself known. Lee’s the kind of person I never want to be, but have always been afraid I really am.

The idea of going to a boarding high school makes me shudder. I spent a lot of time wondering why you would ever choose that, provided your life at home was relatively normal, when you would just have to go through all of it again in college. Maybe that’s because my own college experience wasn’t that great and by the time I started my third year in a dorm I realized it was one year too many (unlike other schools, most U of C’ers stay in the dorms for the entire four years). I wasn’t cut out to put up with other people’s drama and at the time I didn’t yet know how to separate myself from it. Or maybe you really can’t because no matter how against the norm you are, you’re forced to compare yourself against the backdrop of the general student population. Because even though Lee was not like the other Ault students and didn’t really want to be, she wasn’t outside of their emotional reach. I just don’t understand why anyone would want to live like that for eight years, but I guess you don’t know that’s how it’s going to be before you’re fully in it. Maybe you don’t realize that’s how it was until you’re fully out of it.

I spent every moment I could consuming this book and that’s something I haven’t done in a long time. Sure, I’ve read some good books recently, but none that grasped me so hard I couldn’t let go until work or sleep forced me to. I imagine, too, a lot of other readers have felt this way. The majority of them may be female, but that’s not a bad thing because the book is told distinctly from a female point of view and it’s not wrong if that speaks to us. I can’t say if it was the plot or the language or something else that drew me in, but I hope this is a book that continues to hook readers for many years to come. I hope one day, a hundred years in the future when the cars we drive are in history books and only great-grandparents grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, some thirteen-year-old girl picks this up and reads it. Maybe it’ll be assigned to her in freshmen English, if such a thing still exists. Maybe she won’t get understand it right away, because she’ll be a little too young, but she’ll like it well enough and will continue to pick it up every couple of years and reread it into her adulthood. It could be that a decade later she pinpoints that summer, spent lazing on her bed with the pages splayed open and Lee Fiora saturating her mind, as the one when she first truly fell in love with a book. Lee Fiora could be our country’s next Francie Nolan and I can personally pay Ms. Sittenfeld no higher compliment than that.


Blogger piksea said...

I've seen comparisons to 'Catcher in the Rye' and I get what they mean. I found Lee to be such a realistic character. I think I felt about her the way that you did. When she would make a mistake I might've made, I cringed on her behalf. I just felt so bad for her that by hiding and avoiding, she missed out on so much of what that experience could have been for her.

5:02 PM  

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