So it’s that time of year again. The Literary Kitty is another year older and Lovely Mum is attempting to soften the blow with shiny new books. The first of my new haul that I decided to tuck into was Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld.
The Independent on Sunday called Prep “Sweet Valley High as written by George Eliot,” and when she read this Lovely Mum decided that she was sold. I loved Sweet Valley High as a kid (Jessica all the way!) and I’m partial to my literary fiction so she thought it’d be right up my street. I have to say though that with this in mind I was surprised by the book. It wasn’t exactly the lurid crowd-pleaser I expected it to be. Its heroine Lee Fiora is a bit of an oddball really. Having convinced her working-class Indiana parents to let her take a scholarship place at a prestigious Massachusetts boarding school called Ault, Lee finds that things are not as she expected – or rather they are as she expected but she is simply not living the life she expected to live there.
You see, Lee has no friends. She goes about her life silently in awe of those faces from the school brochure she now sees around campus. She’s not desperate, she’s not a hanger-on, in fact she’s so terrified of being seen that way that she voluntarily shuns any social opportunities that come her way. She’s a complex character, old Lee, and she’s more than a little frustrating at times.
Despite the authentic dialogue and the author’s stylish prose, despite her knack for writing the truth about painful adolescence, there is something missing from this book. Those readers who were sold on the Sweet Valley High comparison may well be expecting Lee to burst forth from her lonely, awkward life and become a social butterfly. But no, Sittenfeld keeps it real. If you’ve ever read a book about high school and scoffed, thinking “there’s no way in the world that this would ever happen to her” you’re in for a treat with Prep. It’s an introspective book and quite a melancholy one. It inhabits a world far away from Elizabeth and Jessica’s pep rallies. In fact, if this was Sweet Valley High, Lee would be admiring the Wakefield twins from afar, I am sure of it.
I could relate to this book in certain ways as I went to a private boarding school on a scholarship (although I didn’t board myself). The scale was different – my school wasn’t quite Ault and I wasn’t quite the Midwestern hick that Lee makes herself out to be, but I can appreciate certain aspects of the experience. Elissa Schappell wrote in The New York Times Review of Books that “Sittenfeld’s dialogue is so convincing that one wonders if she didn’t wear a wire under her hockey kilt” and I agree that the dialogue and general atmosphere of the book feel totally authentic.
I can also appreciate Lee’s assertation that nothing ever matters as much as it does when you are at school. She says that for the rest of her life she never felt such an overwhelming need to impress or to not make a fool of herself. Never were the blonde glamazons, always smelling of flowery shampoo, so intimidating as when she was at school with them. Never were the handsome, chiselled boys who were destined to be bankers so awe-inspiring.
So would I recommend this book? Sure. I found myself looking forward to reading it on the way home. I found myself wanting to luxuriate with it in the bath. It’s escapism, but not the usual teen fiction kind…
You see, I loved reading Prep whilst living firmly in my own life and thanking god that I’m no longer fourteen. Not because I was unhappy at school because I wasn’t particularly. Certainly, I was a very different person to Lee. No, I breathe a sigh of relief because when you’re at school you don’t get to choose what matters to you like you do in adult life. You have to wear scratchy skirts and tights, you haven’t yet gained full control over your hair and skin, you feel more angst in those years than you ever feel again. Yep, this is the way I want to view Lee Fiora’s life alright… through the pages of a book.