Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

My fellow blogger at Nonfiction Readers Anonymous and I discussed this book via comments on my earlier post about chick lit. She pointed out that Curtis Sittenfeld (one of the contributors to the collection This is Not Chick Lit) has benefited from the chick lit phenomenon; the cover of this book even sports a nifty pink belt (pink clothing being one of the icons of chick lit covers). Maybe the cover designers were just trying to signify "young" instead of "chick lit" because, while this book is NOT chick lit, it certainly is for young readers. I can't imagine anyone over the age of about 30 really enjoying it. For most of us over this age high school has thankfully faded from day to day memory; reliving it at this level of detail is really not pleasant.

Nevertheless, it's not a bad book. Lee Fiora is a Midwestern scholarship student at an elite east-coast boarding school. Culture shock pervades her every waking moment. She is a fish out of water and spends vast amounts of time and effort just trying to decipher the coded communications of her upper-class classmates. A popular, good student at her public middle school, she is overwhelmed by the superior training and cultural advantages of her peers and she flounders both academically and socially. The best thing I can say about this book is that Sittenfeld is a keen observer of cultural cues and artifacts. A hundred years from now some anthropologist could use this book as a very detailed guide to late 20th century boarding school life. That said, Fiora's character is entirely self-absorbed. Combined with the fact that the book is much too long, the result is far too many pages of ruminative self-examination. After a while, I couldn't take it any more, and I just wanted to shake her and say "Enough already! Stop thinking about yourself so much!" A long section near the end of the book that details a disastrous relationship was very painful to read—it’s so clear to the adult reader that this boy is just using her for sex, but we are forced to endure her character’s continuous (pathetically inaccurate) analysis about this non-relationship, ad nauseum. The book lacks any kind of narrative arc, and instead is just scenes from all four years of high school, presented in chronological order, with occasional commentary from the older version of Lee who is looking back.

Apparently Sittenfeld was in her early twenties when this book was published, which is one reason why the book got so much press. The writing is uneven (as I said above, it’s too long, and she really belabors some points) but certainly authentic sounding. Coincidentally, I am currently reading The Last of Her Kind by Sigrid Nunez, which (at least so far) is about a working class girl attending Barnard College in the 1960’s. The comparison is interesting; while the subject matter is similar, Nunez’s writing is more polished, more nuanced, and subtler than Sittenfeld’s – this is a book for adults, by an adult.

Here is a review.
(Book 48, 2006)


Anonymous said...

Thank you for both the detailed synopsis (now I don't have to read it; I just don't think I'm going to get it done) and for the "it's just too long" comment. That's the feeling I had, just looking at it. This is probably too pushy, but I'd still love to hear how you think Melissa Bank's books stack up against Sittenfeld's, some time...

The Femoral Vein said...

While Lee is a difficult character to like, I don't necessarily think that would qualify the book as bad. In fact, this aspect was a welcome change from normal books whose protaganists strive to establish some kind of an empathy with the reader.
I have written something about this book in my blog as well. Check it out if you can.

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