Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

I happened to be half-way through this novel when Sittenfeld's essay on book clubs appeared in the NYTBR. One of her points was how difficult it is to visit a book club and hear how much the readers disliked her narrator (who is not her, but hers, Sittenfeld points out). I had to laugh because my reaction to the book at that point was, this girl is annoying. I have no problem, though, reading a novel about someone I don't especially like. What I found interesting about Sittenfeld's novel is that it, like Curious Incident..., has been a popular book club book, instead of what I think it ought to be ... a good book for young adults. The reason Prep's narrator is so annoying is because she's a teenager, and like many teenagers she's self-absorbed, embarrassed by her parents, obsessed with her place on the popularity scale, and alienated by large swaths of her world (in this case, an elite prep school). Probably many of us had her annoying personality and self-absortion for a good 3-4 years of our lives. And then we grew up. Novels about teenagers for adults can put us back in that world--causing pleasure and pain--but ultimately they seem most meaningful if they tie our past teenage selves to some adult present. Without much reflection, and without any unusual dramatic events (some teen novels work by putting the teens into adult worlds), this seems a novel best suited to those who are living it, rather than those who have lived it already.

Categories aside... as a writer, I found interesting the familiar structure that Sittenfeld employs--an outsider giving us an inside view of an exclusive world. Like a lot of readers, I like fiction that shows me a world I can't otherwise experience. And like a lot of readers, I identify best with someone who, like me, doesn't identify with that world, but who has infiltrated it and is now sending out dispatches. From what I know of boarding schools, Sittenfeld gives a very real portrayal of its rituals, etc. (this novel, unlike chick lit, is absolute realism). But as much as the structure is tried and true, I found myself wondering if it's time to let the insiders have a say. At this point, I would be interested to hear the popular, rich kid's account of boarding school.


Anonymous said...

I like your analysis of Prep and why it is reaching so far in to adult audiences.

I went to an elite prep school, in fact was accepted and almost went to the one Sittenfeld went to. As someone who would have been close to the other side of Lee's experience, I can parrot what is on the jacket cover of the book and say her account is "pitch perfect". That is exactly how it is.

Anonymous said...

Well, I actually go to the same school Curtis is talking aout, and although this may seem to portray boarding school, I thought that many things that happened in this book could not have been true. It was a good book, but I don't think anyone should stereotype boarding schools because of it.