|BELIEVE THE HYPE? PREP.|
Ordinary women are so rarely seen in popular culture that they sometimes seem as underrepresented as minorities. If we encounter a woman in the movies or on television, she's usually unspeakably gorgeous -- or she's humorously self-deprecating precisely because she's not unspeakably gorgeous. This latter category runs the gamut from the bitterly sarcastic outsider heroines of Ghost World to the agonizingly annoying antics of the uber-insecure Cathy. In order to
attract the world's attention, they rely on their self-constructed quirky personality hooks.
Prep has been praised for many good reasons, one of them being author Curtis Sittenfeld's skill at creating a compelling female protagonist who exists beyond those preconceived stereotypes. A Midwestern high school girl far away from home at a Massachusetts boarding school, Lee Fiora is not popular, but she also doesn't possess any hip defense mechanisms to shield her insecurity. She is only moderately attractive, but she doesn't have a raging intelligence or poetic soul
to compensate for her modest features. She is intensely self-critical and unhappy, but there's nothing artificially lovable about her hang-ups. She is (there is no other way to say it) ordinary and common -- depressingly and familiarly so.
Unlike most authors churning out coming-of-age stories, Sittenfeld (a woman in her late 20s) does not use her first novel to turn childhood angst into a comforting bed of phony moralizing or platitudes. Written from Lee's perspective approximately 10 to 15 years after her time at prestigious Ault School, Prep takes on gender and class and adolescence, but those aren't the factors that make the book so distinctive. Without nostalgia or self-pity, Sittenfeld has described that tumultuous period in anyone's life when you begrudgingly acknowledge the limits of your possibilities, when the crush of reality sets in. Prep is about nothing less than the sting of the Great Disappointment, a malady that affects everyone it touches, both women and men.
Set sometime during the '90s, the book brings us through Lee's four years at Ault. Thanks to academic scholarships, Lee awkwardly attends classes with the filthy rich of the East Coast, along with a few (equally ostracized) minorities added for the sake of diversity. Embarrassed by her middle-class Indiana origins, she feels less cultured, mature, and together than her peers. For most of us, that collision of different life experiences occurs in college; Lee has elected to enter that pressure cooker at a younger age, inspired by ambitious dreams of challenging herself academically.
While Prep deserves its considerable buzz (including some pretty hefty accolades from the likes of Tom Perrotta and Dave Eggers), the consensus praise (and even some of the critical knocks) have centered on class issues -- specifically how a self-conscious girl of relative means copes with a bunch of wealthy snobs. That's a fair description of what goes on in Prep, but Sittenfeld's purpose is trickier than that, and more damning to all of us who pride ourselves on not being aristocratic bluebloods. Sittenfeld knows that Lee suffers because of economic disparity, but by writing as Lee in the first person, she shows us that this girl's problems aren't because of Ault. They were present before she even left home, arguing against the idea that someone else's financial good fortune guarantees our inability to find happiness.
Prep is Lee's memoir of her Ault experience, and as such Lee divides the book into chapters that encapsulate significant periods in her development -- or, more precisely, significant characters that she encounters. Admittedly, many of these characters will not surprise anyone familiar with the going-off-to-school genre of fiction: the sensitive loner, the shocking suicide attempt, the surprise lesbian, the not-quite-perfect crush. But Sittenfeld doesn't expect these plot twists to surprise her audience; instead, their familiarity makes them universal and inevitable. What is unique is how Lee (from her present-day perspective) interprets the events, explaining how they shaped her. And, more often than not, they reveal failings of her character. As a narrator, Lee is almost miraculously incapable of justifying her behavior or rewriting history. She knows what she's done.
Very cleverly, Sittenfeld reveals little about Lee's current whereabouts as we follow teenaged Lee through her adventures. Since we only have the vaguest inklings of the present-day Lee, the reader must pick through the occasional clues laid out in her comments about those Ault years to predict how these anecdotes have shaped the future Lee. Adding to the mystery, our narrator has an uncanny ability to render her high-school life without a hint of sentimentality. Whereas Bridget Jones means for us to shake our heads and laugh along with Bridget's dopey problems, Prep is shockingly pitiless and melancholy. No one can walk away from the novel with the idea that Lee is writing this book as a way to get even with the past. Rather, it feels like a still-raging debate within Lee, an attempt for her to understand the girl she was as a way to figure out the woman she is now. Prep speaks to the great Ault experience we all have faced -- our Great Disappointment, the thing we craved (or the person we desired) that we simply could not have because of a fundamental flaw in our nature. Normally, that Great Disappointment is not something we learn a simplistic lesson from. We go to therapy to deal with it, we let it affect other areas of our life -- we may even write books about it. But we don't get over it. Prep quietly seethes with such discontent, not to mention a creeping fear that peace of mind may never come.
Sittenfeld has grasped that conundrum and wrapped it in those turbulent years of high school, adding the social-cultural dimension of a preppy boarding school to heighten the anxiety. But Lee's miseries with bad grades, snobby friends and lame boys shouldn't allow us to marginalize Prep as high-quality chick lit. So much of that ilk desperately seeks chummy approval, but Lee feels no need to win us over. If anything, she's very fair to her younger self; she understands that the girl from high school had the typical angst of those formative years, but that she also gave in to the worst tendencies of her personality by her own volition.
Feeling ugly around Ault's pretty girls, she blames her peers' money as an explanation for their confidence and good looks. But when she actually comes across a guy who finds her interesting, she brusquely pushes him away because of her insecurities and because he's a townie, not good enough to be associating with prep-school girls. After being recognized for her school work in junior high, Lee falters at Ault; no longer easily the star pupil, she becomes defeated and lazy, essentially giving up on herself. Rather than working hard to establish her own niche, she borrows inward, trying to be as anonymous as possible, a decision that destines her for an underwhelming prep-school life of shrinking expectations.
Lee doesn't gloss over these truths; Prep is a record of unmitigated failure, of an era that still haunts her. With the advantage of hindsight, Lee recognizes how her pettiness and cruelty blocked her from being happy -- beautifully played out in a senior year that balances lust and betrayal with a somberness that eschews the cutesy trappings of first love. In a way, this is less a coming-of-age novel and more a philosophical treatise: How do we cope with the Great Disappointment? Can we gain anything constructive from it? How do we keep it from destroying the rest of our life? Once we realize we're no longer perfect, what are we?
Appropriately, Prep's conclusion does not find Lee in a much brighter place. "I am older," she writes flatly near the end, "and my life is very different," still hiding and scared from a life that singed her too severely long ago. There is something poignant and tragic about Prep that is not remotely precious. Curtis Sittenfeld has taken the clichés of growing up and asked us to be tougher on ourselves. Everyone fails, and we can neither obsess over it nor try to bury it in the attic of our memories. Sittenfeld constructs Prep out of one of the most common narrative devices and with a suffocatingly common protagonist, but that's the point. Lee's insecurities may be inherently female in nature, but anyone with a modicum of self-knowledge can see himself in Prep's claustrophobic prison of doubt and sorrow. Wiser than before, Lee nonetheless gets no happy ending; I'm not even sure if writing her memoir has made her feel better. But life's like that. Rarely do we grow and change from our mistakes. We just carry them as psychic dead weight, hoping somehow to one day shake it free. And, as Prep argues, money doesn't have a thing to do with it.
Believe the Hype Rating: 8 out of 10
Tim Grierson is the editor of The Simon. Believe the Hype runs every other Monday on The Black Table.