Note: Over the next week or so, I will be corresponding with my friend Kenneth Burns–who leads a double online life here and here–about Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel Prep, recently released in paperback. This is the first installment.
I was glad to hear that you were also a fan of Prep. Both of us have personal reasons for being interested in the book, and I trust we’ll get around to discussing those eventually. To begin, though, I want to touch on what seemed to me the novel’s strong points.
I thought the two main qualities that made the novel stand out were its refusal to idealize its protagonist, Lee, and its success at rendering both a problem character and a problem setting with such thick particularity. A few weeks back, Curtis Sittenfeld wrote in the New York Times Book Review about the hell she has taken from some readers for putting at the center of her novel a flawed and sometimes downright unappealing character. For me, this feature was crucial to the book’s interest. The basic story Prep tells is of an encounter between strangers, the Ault School and Lee Fiora: the east coast bastion of privilege, and the interloper from the midwest whose romance with and skepticism toward it are both functions of her intense self-consciousness. As determining factors, Lee’s psychology and Ault’s social dynamic are held in exquisite balance. But the way I’ll probably finally remember Prep is as a great portrait of self-consciousness–a form of psychological experience that can practically be honed to an art form by teenage girls (and probably boys, too, but neither Prep nor my own experience can speak to that).
Part of what I loved about Prep was its willingness to take this rawest form of self-consciousness seriously as a social and psychological phenomenon–by mercilessly anatomizing it. I think the novel is about as insightful on such matters as the late great television show Freaks and Geeks (I can’t remember whether you were a fan), though it is less comic and much harder on its protagonist. Here I’ll pause to note what a fantastically page-turning read Prep is–I zoomed through it at warp speed–and how great the temptation therefore is to dismiss it as fluff. It’s one of those books that I would put down only reluctantly and pick up again hungrily, as if it were a letter full of juicy gossip about everyone I’ve ever known. So the impulse is to dismiss it, and I think that snap judgment is sadly telling about our mistrust of certain kinds of pleasure in reading. (And by “us” I mean, roughly, anyone who ever used the phrase “literary fiction” in earnest, which I do close to daily.)
So Lee hides in the dormitory phone booth or reflects, “I believed then that if you had a good encounter with a person, it was best not to see them again for as long as possible lest you taint the previous interaction.” I recognized this way of thinking; it’s something I’ve thought before, but never very consciously. Because of the extremity of Lee’s social circumstances and the almost surgical style Sittenfeld employs, the dissection Prep performs–both social and psychological–regularly unearths insights like this, bringing submerged modes of thinking to the surface.
So what did you like about the novel?