In her ruthless efforts to make a book that depicts how prep school “really” is, Curtis Sittenfield’s Prep forgets that in order for a novel to work things must happen.
Assumedly, the book was supposed to be a coming-of-age novel wherein the fish-out-of-water protagonist Lee Fiora, learns to exceed the repressive bounds of prep school and get over her personal issues. However, this is not the case. Instead the book is horribly lopsided, Sittenfield spends three hundred pages having the protagonist shuffle around feeling awkward and passing judgment on everything she sees followed by a hundred pages of high school events where Lee learns nothing.
It seems nothing can escape Lee’s annoyance and judgment. Here is her description of a classmate named Clara, with whom she barely shares a conversation with the entire novel:
She was big…and she favored tapered, bleached jeans and long dumpy skirts. In her demeanor, there was something spacey and innocent, something slow and not discontented, and it was these qualities I found so irritating.” (226)
When Clara becomes very upset when her roommate is in the hospital after nearly dying Lee mocks her for this too: “Clara was bawling as openly and recklessly as an infant: her face was splotchy pink, and tears were streaming down her face…[it] was both grotesque and spellbinding” (212). All this occurs while Lee is wondering why it is so hard for her to make friends at school. Gee! I can’t imagine why the sullen, awkward, hypercritical girl isn’t everyone’s best friend!
The final 100 pages of the novel is mostly concerned with Lee’s relationship with Cross Sugarman (yes, Sittenfield really does love overly-romantic names) who almost holds her hand at the book’s beginning and who she stalks for the next three years.
Sittenfield is clearly drawing on two sources: The Great Gatsby and The Catcher in the Rye. Yet she fails to realize what makes either great. She employs the “passive narrator” techniques used in The Great Gatsby, but forgets that in Fitzgerald’s book other characters actually do things. On the other hand, Sittenfield adamantly pulls away from any character that has the slightest potential of being interesting. Lee’s first friend, the angry cynical Little Washington shows instant promise, being separated from her twin and one of the few students of color at the school. So, of course, she is almost instantly sent away. The same happens to Conchita, the eccentric half-Mexican daughter of an oil magnate whose bizarre appearance, as well as her enormous wealth, set her apart from other students. Instead of the two outcasts banding together Conchita is switched out for Martha, a boring girl whose notable trait is not getting upset.
Though both The Catcher in the Rye and Prep follow highly-introverted students, Salinger’s Holden Caulfield has highly complex thoughts, though they are not always well articulated. Sittenfield’s Lee spends an awful lot of time thinking by herself but her “big bang”thought at the end of the novel is that rich students and poor students are different. She never gets any further than this.
Adding irritation is Sittenfield’s constant use of flash forward. Any immediacy or suspense in the novel is constantly thwarted by flash forwards. Will an ill friend recover? Will Lee’s relationship work out? Will Lee pull up her math grade enough to graduate? All are answered as soon they are introduced.
All in all Sittenfield’s novel is a disappointment and the obnoxious nature of her protagonist reminds me of why I was so happy to get out of high school.