I finished reading Prep by Curtis Sittenfield this weekend. It is about a girl named Lee Fiora who decides at the age of 13 to apply to boarding school. She gets in, and even gets an almost total financial aid package, which is good because her family in South Bend, Indiana, doesn’t have a lot of dough. So Lee leaves for Ault, a prestigious prep school in Massachusetts.
This story had the potential to be great. I am a big fan of coming of age, bildingsroman, roman a clef, whatever you want to call them. And I think like Lee, I was curious about the mystique of boarding schools. I used to drive by Phillips Exeter all the time when I lived in NH, and thought how beautiful the campus was, and how steeped in tradition it always seeemed to me – like fall in New England.
And I say the story had potential to be great because it started out really well. Lee feels inadequate compared to her classmates – the rich and the powerful, or at least, the children of the rich and the powerful. And she does an excellent job of becoming invisible. But the problem is, except for a few little surges of wanting to belong, she largely stays invisible, and not much happens in the book. And it sure is a long book for so little to happen. Some of the blurbs on the book jacket compare Lee’s narrative to that of Holden Caufield, but I beg to differ. Holden was depressed, yes, went to a boarding school, yes, and examined his classmates with the same keen observation as Lee. But the really great thing about Holden is that even though he recognizes that he is surrounded by inauthentic “phonies,” he has anger and does something about his repressed anger – he runs away. Lee just sits there, waiting for something to happen to her. I kept getting frustrated at her inertia, and unwillingness to grow as a person (and a character).
I think this story would have been better if it had been shorter. There were large passages I skipped over because after reading, oh, a hundred or so of them, realized that they didn’t seem to contribute any relevance to the story. I think the editor could have done a better job.
I am not saying I hated this book, though, even if it seems I am being harsh. I think Sittenfield has potential to be a really interesting writer. I just wish that this behemoth of a book had been cut down a little to save me the trouble of skimming through most of it.
~posted by Anna M. Nelson