Summer Reading Challenge: Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

Prep tells the story of four years in the life of Lee Fiora, who wins a scholarship to an exclusive boarding school in Massachusetts. Because most of the other students at Ault have rich parents, Lee feels inadequate and inferior. A lot of her unhappiness is caused by her own insecurities – people do try to be friends with her, but her shyness and paranoia makes her push them away. But Lee is more than just shy; she suffers from social anxiety. She agonises over every decision; she analyses every word anybody says to her. She misses out on parties, meals, trips to Boston and other social activities because she doesn’t know how to deal with them. She has trouble fitting in and feels out of place at Ault.

“Of course, now I wonder where I had gotten the idea that for you to participate in a gathering, the other people had to really, really want you to be there and that anything short of rabid enthusiasm on their part meant you’d be a nuisance…Sometimes now I think of all the opportunities I didn’t take – to get a manicure in town, to watch television in another dorm, to go outside for a snowball fight – and of how refusal became a habit for me, and then I felt it would be conspicuous if I ever did join in.”

Prep is a very well written book (though not quite “Sweet Valley High as written by George Eliot” as was quoted on the cover) and because Lee spends so much of her time observing people and situations, we get a lot of insights into every aspect of boarding school life. I grew up reading boarding school stories such as Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers and St Clare’s series and despite some obvious differences (the Enid Blyton books were set in Britain in the 1940s; Prep is set in America in what appears to be the 1980s or early 90s), there are actually some elements that are very similar. This is definitely not a children’s book, however, but one that will appeal to both adults and young adults.

As this is Lee’s story and we spend the entire book inside Lee’s head, whether or not you like the book will probably depend on what you think of her as a character. I immediately felt that she was somebody I could understand and identify with. She worried about a lot of the same things I worried about myself as a teenager (things that many of us probably worried about, actually, such as saying the wrong thing when answering questions in class, who to sit beside on the bus etc). I was never one of the most popular girls at school so I could relate to Lee and at first I was pleased to have discovered a character who felt so real, but after around 100 pages I started to feel differently about her. She began to come across as shallow, judgmental and difficult to like. I was torn between feeling sorry for Lee and feeling frustrated with her as she made one mistake after another. I also found some of her experiences painful to read about because they reminded me of all the things I didn’t like about going to school and being a teenager!

The other characters in the book (mostly Lee’s fellow students) are interesting because they represent all the different types of people we all knew when we were at school. I did feel that some of them were racial or class stereotypes, though as we only saw them through Lee’s eyes it’s difficult to know whether that was just the way Lee perceived them.

The story is narrated by an older Lee looking back on her school days and there are times when she recognises that she should have handled a situation differently and that she wasted a lot of opportunities, but there’s otherwise very little character development in this book. Although it would have been unrealistic to expect her to have a complete personality change, Lee is almost the same person at the end of her senior year as she was at the beginning of her freshman year, which is a bit disappointing. For this reason, I found Prep slightly dissatisfying, considering the book is almost 500 pages long, but I would recommend it as an accurate portrayal of the awkwardness of adolescence.

I received a copy of this book from Transworld Publishers as part of their Summer Reading Challenge – this is book 4/4 and completes the challenge

6 thoughts on “Summer Reading Challenge: Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

    • Helen says:

      Thanks, I’ve been lucky in that I’ve enjoyed all four of my books for the challenge. I think this one was probably my favourite – or possibly After You by Julie Buxbaum.

      Good luck with finishing the challenge!

  1. Charlie says:

    I hadn’t thought of that before, that she hadn’t developed, though I was frustrated sometimes. Looking back I think the ways that I identified with Lee had so much to do with my liking it that I did overlook other things.

    Happy to hear your favourite is After You, as I’m just about to read it!

    • Helen says:

      I think one of the good things about this book is that most readers will probably be able to identify with Lee in one way or another.

      I hope you enjoy After You too!

  2. Mae says:

    I laughed at the quote ‘Sweet Valley High as written by George Eltiot’. While I did love the entire sweet valley series (I grew up on them!), that is not a good quote to slap on the book cover!

    The story does sound interesting. Although I haven’t read anything by the author, it seems like he/she? always runs out of steam towards the end. Or perhaps she just needs a good editor. Ah, hindsight. It’s the best, and worst, thing.

    • Helen says:

      I used to love Sweet Valley too! This book doesn’t have much in common with the Sweet Valley High books though, other than being set in a high school.
      And yes, Curtis Sittenfeld is female. 🙂

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