Prep is one of those books that I remember coming out because I remember the cover. It's all white with a green and pink belt wrapped around it. I remember seeing that book on a table at Borders way back in 2005 and thinking 'That looks pretty good.' Of course, I didn't read it until 2012 but the point is, I remembered it the minute I saw it on the shelf at the library and grabbed it right away. And who says you can't judge a book by its cover?
Prep tells the story of Lee Fiora, a young girl from South Bend, Illinois, who decides, somewhat on a whim, that she wants to go to boarding school on the east coast. She convinces her parents, fills out the forms and never really believes it's going to happen until it does and she finds herself at Ault, an exclusive boarding school just outside of Boston. Each chapter takes place in a certain period of her four years at Ault, from the first semester of her freshman year to her graduation. Friends come and go, teachers root for her and dislike her, and boys seem ever present but eternally far away. In general, it's high school.
Now, I never went to boarding school but Sittenfeld did and you can tell from the novel that most of it must have been based on real experiences. She is able to draw a complete and engrossing picture of Ault because she has such experience to rely on. There is no doubt in your mind that the bank boys exist, that floral bedsheets are a status symbol and no one goes to the mall on free weekends. It all connects into a completely realized picture of a separate society of students and teachers who have little access to the world outside Ault.
I may have not gone to a boarding school but I did go to a prep school and parts of Ault really resonated with me. The bits about the rich kids and the poorer kids getting along but secretly knowing just who they really were. Money not being spoken of but on everyone's minds. Cool kids acting like nothing in life could bother them and not as cool kids just trying to get by. Grades being a top priority and people not just being wealthy but smart, as well. Don't get me wrong; I loved my high school but anyone could see that similar situations were abundant there. It added a touch of realism for me I don't know was there for everyone.
Lee Fiora is a complicated character and I don't know if she would suit everyone's tastes. I've heard her described as a modern day female Holden Caufield and I can see where that is coming from. Lee is both very much and not at all your average teenage girl. She has a crush on the coolest boy in school. She worries about her grades (but perhaps not as much as she should.) She likes to sit in her dorm room and read magazines instead of going to chapel. She loves her best friend Martha but sometimes she drives her crazy.
Sittenfeld goes farther than that with Lee, however. Lee has issues that she never really addresses in the novel. She has problems with showing enthusiasm. Despite always wanting to be a part of things, she never really lets herself, preferring to be detached. She never goes to school dances to the point where, when she considers maybe going along, her friends don't even think about inviting her anymore. She lets a boy use her, despite the fact that she knows full well what's happening. I've read quite a few reviews on this book (while waiting for a friend at the park) and it's astounding how many people just hate Lee because of all this. I'm not going to lie; sometimes I thought Lee was being a bit of a douche. But who isn't when they're fifteen?
Sittenfeld doesn't go the obvious route with her "teenage angst", she has a girl who is all the ugliness of puberty as well as some of the good. And that's what I found refreshing. There's a chapter where Lee's parents come to visit her and Lee, despite wanting to see them and loving them so much she can't stand it, is horrifically embarrassed by them and finds herself being short with them, despite it all. She gets into a giant fight with her father and it all turns horribly wrong. And you feel every instant of it. You're instantly transported back to being sixteen and loving your parents but never wanting to be seen with them. There's even a bit where Lee wishes they could just go into Boston and be themselves, that she'd even let her mother take a picture of her inside a restaurant. But she can't be their little girl and who she has created at Ault at the same time. And I think that's something everyone who was ever a teenager remembers somewhat painfully.
Prep is not a feel good novel but it's not a downer either. It's a book about being a teenager, with all that entails, good and bad. I loved the end, how Lee both loved and hated Ault and didn't know what to do with herself. I loved everything being confusing. It was messy and it hurt but sometimes it made you smile. And that's why I liked it.