PREP is a delightful novel that focuses on Lee Fiora, who hails from South Bend, Indiana and decides to go to a posh boarding school near Boston. Ault is filled with students who are so privileged that they don't need cash on campus, whereas Lee is on scholarship. For most of her first year, Lee is friendly with her two roommates but is mostly friendless. Then she becomes best friends with Martha, and things get a little easier. But throughout high school, Lee feels the usual teen angst compounded by the fact that she really is an outsider, no matter how comfortable she becomes with the school.
Lee is also never completely honest with her family about her feelings concerning Ault. She is fundamentally close to her family, but as with many teenagers, her relationship with them changes as she gets older. Lee makes things harder for herself though by not accepting that she is indeed an outsider and doing her own thing, a fact that several friends mention along the way. This all comes to a head near the end of senior year. At this point, she has been intimate with a boy but was not in a real relationship with him. Nonetheless, Lee becomes downright nostalgic about a school that changed her life but never really embraced her.
Fortunately, this 400-page tome is filled with fascinating characters. There's Dede, Lee's roommate from freshman year who is both bristly and friendly throughout high school. Sin-Jun, Lee's other roommate from freshman year, later tries to kill herself after an unsuccessful relationship with another woman. There's Conchita, who Lee assumes is on scholarship but is actually ridiculously rich. Conchita has a limo pick the girls up one day when they meet her mother in town for lunch. There's Aspeth, an uber-popular girl about whom rock songs are written. Cross Sugarman is a young man who everyone likes a lot, including Lee, and Darden Prittard is a black guy from the Bronx who is friendly with everyone.
As for the teachers, Ms. Moray is from the Midwest and teaches English. Her first teaching assignment is at Ault, and she tries too hard in all the wrong ways. Ms. Prosek is an advisor who doesn't stick up for Lee when things get rough. And who can forget Aubrey, a shy boy who develops a crush on Lee when he becomes her math tutor.
Even minor characters, such as Little Washington, a scholarship student who stole from Lee's dorm-mates freshman year, stay with readers long after they've left the school.
Curtis Sittenfeld utilizes these characters to tell a coming-of-age story, give a snapshot of prep school life, and subtly explore class and race. Sittenfeld writes from the perspective of Lee as a 24-year-old who is living in an unmentioned city. Throughout the book we get glimpses of the characters' lives after high school, which gives depth to the story. There are a few times when Sittenfeld offers too much analysis and explanation, and on one occasion her foreshadowing gives part of the story away. But for the most part, her story is flawless.
Sittenfeld clearly has an insider's perspective of boarding school life. Her protagonist is defensive about people's perceptions of prep life, and there are a number of details that only can be known by someone who has experienced prep school firsthand. It's doubtful that Sittenfeld's story is autobiographical, and it hardly matters if it is. Sittenfeld won a Seventeen fiction contest when she was 16, and her journalism has appeared in national publications. Clearly, her writing speaks for itself.
Reviewed by Jane Van Ingen on January 19, 2011