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Prep by Curtis Sittenfield

Prep is a 2005 coming-of-age bildungsroman by Curtis Sittenfeld about a “LMK” (Lower Middle Class) girl from Indiana who goes to the prestigious Groton…I mean Ault…School. The one to one matching of elements from the author’s alma mater to her fictional universe are so comprehensive, one wonders in the end: why bother with the gloss? (The kids in Prep are still applying to Harvard and Michigan; the political parties are still Republican and Democrat, etc.)

The precision fortunately extends to the mapping of her society and psyche as the girl enters a new world. Sittenfield’s writing shines in its frequent simple observations:

“Fall in the Midwest would be pretty but not overly pretty—not like in New England, where they called the leaves foliage.”

“Several times, I recognized a student from a photograph in the [school’s] catalog. It was disorienting, the way I imagined it might be to see a celebrity on the streets of New York or Los Angeles.”

““Oh, gosh,” my mother said, as if a senior were as rare as a black pearl or an endangered tree frog.”

The is better about the anxieties and ambitions of girls (“Listening to their cries, I felt a familiar jealousy of boys. I didn’t want what they had, but I wished that I wanted what they wanted; it seemed like happiness was easier for them.”) than it is about the boys. They are all two dimensional, an inversion some might say of the normal gender balances often seen in literature. Still, the axis of the book that runs through the chapters is her relationships to two of them: her dad and her love interest with the impossibly preppy name of Cross Sugarman.

There is only one hard and unexpected choice made in the novel, when on the brink of failure she is saved by her roommate, Martha. She is the apotheosis of Groton feminine goodness. This I was sure was going to be the heart of all the further tensions in the book, but was mere background noise.

That could be a literary choice – an interesting one – were it not for the deus ex machina events to give closure to the the threads of the book. A New York Times reporter using Lee’s observations exposes the school’s hypocrisy about class. This winds up being neatly meta – the book itself taking the school publicly to task. It also seems grossly unfair to Groton and it’s ilk. The alternative is to admit no scholarship students to such wonderful educational opportunities?

Prep in the end stumbles as a Cipherpunk manifesto. (The original name of the book was reported to have been “Cipher” which would have been very suitable if less salable.) Lee makes no meaningful choices just observations. The observations last, but the characters don’t. The book’s poignancy peter outs into mere sociology and by the end of Prep the reader is counting down for the bell to ring.

Three Stars

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