I loved the scene you mentioned in which Lee refuses to read aloud in class her essay revealing that her father runs a mattress store. And I think it is in scenes like this that Sittenfeld’s novel is discernible as a bona fide adult novel, despite its surface similarities to many a YA book, and as a novel depicting a social reality rather than the sort of idealized world in which simply “being yourself” is a sure road to rewards–the sort of world endemic, but far from limited, to YA. The reader, I submit, knows in her heart of hearts that Lee has sized up her peers’ class prejudices acutely and that on some crucial level she is right to suppress the knowledge of her father’s occupation. Not because it is shameful, obviously, but because in the setting in which she needs to survive, it will only make things harder. In a lesser novel, Lee’s choice would feel like a disappointment and defeat; in this bracingly disillusioned one, it made me feel relieved. Which is not to say it wasn’t heartbreaking, too.
As fascinated and moved as I was by Lee’s travails, I wouldn’t exactly call this a case of identification. It’s true–since you have egged me on to get personal–that I switched from public to private school for tenth to twelfth grades and that there was some associated culture shock and loneliness. But my school wasn’t Ault (though quite fancy, it was far from the east coast and mostly a day school) and I wasn’t Lee. What I identified with in the book had more to do with form than with content–it wasn’t the content of Lee’s experience that catapulted me back to those good/bad old days, but Sittenfeld’s formal approach of accreting an overwhelming multitude of mundane and ephemeral details to represent a way of taking in the world when one is unsure where one belongs in it (doubly for Lee, both by virtue of being a teenager and by virtue of being a fish out of water socially): observing and trying to properly interpret everything in one’s path, looking for clues that might chip away at the incomprehensibility of one’s surroundings. I think it’s pretty amazing that Sittenfeld was able to approximate that perceptual mode so uncannily while not boring us to tears with the details themselves–quite the contrary.
My parting question to you, should you choose to accept it, is this: what did you think of the ready-made structure of the book, which turns each season of Lee’s career at Ault into a chapter? Too facile or true to the way teenagers emplot their lives?