Monday, September 29, 2008

Curtis Sittenfeld/PREP

Sometime in the 90s, a smartypants from the midwest who wants more than her public high school has to offer secures herself a scholarship to an elite boarding school in Massachusetts that is peopled mainly by the children of extreme privelege. There, Lee finds herself an underachiever and an outsider, quite unlike the person she was at home. Lee chronicles her four years at Ault, her misery, loneliness, failure, abortive friendships and romantic relationships, and estrangements from her family and the people who once loved her, all the price of the top-notch education she's supposedly getting.

I realize now that Angelle reviewed this book almost a year ago. Her review, although brief, captures many of my sentiments. PREP, while not at all poorly written, is not such a literary gem that it wasn't too long by half, and I found myself impatient and dying to start skimming only a quarter of the way through.

As Angelle cited in her review, the book is told in vignettes. Over four years, many plot lines and characters are introduced, but almost everything is in passing. Although this is not unlike the real high school experience (remember how your best friend freshman year is just the girl who sits next to you but whom you never talk to by junior year? Yeah, I guess it really is pretty on target), it is a little difficult to sustain interest over an entire 450-page novel when there is little to no continuity among characters or plot. In fact, one of the only continuous elements in the book is Lee's cringeworthy behavior.

Despite what I've said so far, PREP wasn't a terrible read. The real trouble (after the lack of continuity) was that there was no redemption or any uplifting aspect too it--I kept find myself waiting for Lee to finally claim a victory over her snotty classmates or at least over her own self-defeatism, but alas, the day never came. Perhaps this can be ascribed to Sittenfeld's accurate capturing of how horrible it is to be in high school. Unfortunately, it just fell too close to the bone, and without any forgiveness. The book literally caused me discomfort.

I am, nevertheless, curious about AMERICAN WIFE, her follow-up. Anyone read it?


Anonymous said...

I'm halfway through the book and it makes me feel uncomfortable. I looked up a blog to see if there was a hint of something a little more exciting would happen and I found this. Now I know why it hurts to read the book, because sometimes people become like Lee, things happen in passing, non-concluding, just occuring and Lee herself is just happy to let it all pass.
I try really hard to imagine that I'm not like Lee, but then again everyone is sometimes Lee, and it's a scary concept to reflect on yourself at that time.

moonrat said...

Blech, "uncomfortable" is exactly the right word. Sigh. I don't think that makes this a bad book at all; but it does make it difficult to read...

Lara Diamond said...

I wouldn't have read American Wife after reading Prep because Prep bored the pants off me (not to mention how boring I found the person who inspired the book and how contemptible I found her real-life husband). But someone gave me a signed copy of AW, so I felt like I had to read at least enough of it to pretend I had finished it. Surprise. I read the whole thing and actually kinda liked it. I found myself actually thinking about the main character for days, maybe weeks after reading it. AW was a far more mature book than Prep and not just because the main character was older. The Laura Bush character was quite richly imagined and Sittenfeld managed to make her sympathetic and engaging without letting her off the hook for some of her decisions. One thing I liked about the book was the way it explored the morally gray areas of this woman's life and her choices. I think it might have made me the teensiest bit less judgmental. That is big.

moonrat said...

Lara--funny you chime in now; not two days ago I got the most glowing personal recommendation for AMERICAN WIFE from a person who said basically what you just did. Thanks for reminding me; I guess I'll order it now :)