A stunning novel in the great tradition of American coming-of-age novels from Catcher in the Rye to The Secret History.
Lee Fiora is a shy fourteen-year-old when she leaves small-town Indiana for a scholarship at Ault, an exclusive boarding school in Massachusetts.
Her head is filled with images from the school brochure of handsome boys in sweaters leaning against old brick buildings, girls running with lacrosse sticks across pristine athletics fields, everyone singing hymns in chapel.
But as she soon learns, Ault is a minefield of unstated rules and incomprehensible social rituals, and Lee must work hard to find – and maintain – her place in the pecking order.
Curtis Sittenfeld’s poignant and occassionally angst-ridden debut novel Prep is the story of Lee Fiora, a South Bend, Indiana, teenager who wins a scholarship to the prestigious Ault school, an East Coast institution where “money was everywhere on campus, but it was usually invisible.” As we follow Lee through boarding school, we witness firsthand the triumphs and tragedies that shape our heroine’s coming-of-age. Yet while Sittenfeld may be a skilled storyteller, her real gift lies in her ability to expertly give voice to what is often described as the most alienating period in a young person’s life: high school.
True to its genre, Prep is filled with boarding school stereotypes–from the alienated gay student to the picture perfect blond girl; the achingly earnest first-year English teacher and the dreamy star basketball player who never mentions the fact that he’s Jewish. Lee’s status as an outsider is further affirmed after her parents drive 18 hours in their beat-up Datsun to attend Parent’s Weekend, where most of the kids “got trashed and ended up skinny-dipping in the indoor pool” at their parents’ fancy hotel. Yet even as the weekend deteriorates into disaster and ends with a heartbreaking slap across the face, Sittenfeld never blames or excuses anyone; rather, she simply incorporates the experience into Lee’s sense of self. (“How was I supposed to understand, when I applied at the age of thirteen, that you have your whole life to leave your family?”)
By the time Lee graduates from Ault, some readers may tire of her constant worrying and self-doubting obsessions. However, every time we feel close to giving up on her, Sittenfeld reels us back in and makes us root for Lee. In doing so, perhaps we are rooting for every high school student who’s ever wanted nothing more than to belong. –Gisele Toueg
Elizabeth Curtis Sittenfeld (born 1975) is an American writer. She is author of five novels: Prep, the tale of a Massachusetts prep school; The Man of My Dreams, a coming-of-age novel and an examination of romantic love; American Wife, a fictional story loosely based on the life of First Lady Laura Bush; Sisterland, which tells the story of identical twins with psychic powers, as well as a number of short stories.