Monday, 16 August 2010

Review: Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

I think Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep deserves 5 out of 5 stars.

The story of a teenage girl's four years at an exclusive private high school, Prep is bleak, harsh and brilliant. While on the surface the novel could be classed as a boarding school story, there are undercurrents here that make it so much more. The caste system of this elite school is emphasized, along with teenage sexuality, friendship and the social differences between narrator Lee, who's on a scholarship, and her wealthy classmates. 

Reading this, I loved that there were so many different things to stop and pick up on. The novel is not so much about a quest for popularity as it is a quest for Lee to somehow satisfy herself that she is not unworthy, and her self-doubt and eagerness to please continue right through the story.

What I liked best about Prep was the fact that nowhere do the characters slip into an easy or lazy stereotype. The most popular boy in Lee's year is not an arrogant dumb jerk, nor is he by any means the swoon-worthy perfect guy of every teenage girl's dreams. The most popular girl, who by all rights would be a right bitch in an average high school movie, is not actually that bad at all: she's self-absorbed, yes, and she's not the nicest person around, but there's nothing overtly vicious or evil about her. 

Most interesting of all is Lee: as the narrator, we should sympathize most with her, but over the course of the novel I found myself looking at Lee the way others around her do: as somebody who has no identity of her own, but imitates attitudes she thinks will make her likable and popular. As we journey through Lee's four years, we feel for her and understand her, but we're allowed to step back from her and look at her critically. I found this remarkable.

The novel isn't satisfying. There's no happy ending, no sense of epiphany or closure or true completion. If that's the kind of ending you want, this is probably not the book for you. It doesn't satisfy you.

But I kind of think that's the point.


  1. Sounds intruiging, Sangu. I do like a book without a neat ending, after all life never is neat and tidy.
    Great review, I've missed you over the weekend. xxx

  2. This was a book I really didn't like when I first read it, because I found Lee so un-likeable. She reminded me a bit of Holden Caulfield: scornful of her society yet lonely and desperate to fit in; opinionated but weak and indecisive; and the sort of gloomy, awkward person I probably wouldn't want as a friend.

    But the book was striking, sort of like Catcher in the Rye, so I read it again. The second time, when I wasn't hoping to LIKE Lee or fully relate to her, I got more out of the story and empathized better.

    You're right--one great thing to say about this book is that it doesn't wrap characters or storylines into any sort of neat, tidy, cliched forms. Ambiguity and conflict are allowed to persist, and that is both uncomfortable and brilliant.

  3. I love love LOVED this book. LOVED!

    I read it ages ago, when it first came out, after I read a great review of it in the London Review of Books - I think it was. I loved Lee as well. She's so well drawn, and so realistic. I definitely cringed reading parts of this!

  4. This sounds great. I love it when characters do not stay in their stereotypes!! Nice review :)

  5. If I was as articulate as you, that's exactly what I would have written about it. I find her a very interesting author but having read her other two books, there's an overall tone that I can't quite like. I think it's the apathy of the lead characters.

  6. I liked it all the way to the end. Lame.