Prep is my second choice in the Transworld Summer Challenge. I chose it because a) i didn’t want all my selections to be by men; and b) this was the only book by a female author on the list that sounded as though it might be of interest (I say this without knowing whether ‘Tim Davys’ is the pseudonym of a male or female writer). It probably wouldn’t have appeared on my radar if not for the challenge… and there’s a big ‘but’ stopping me fully from celebrating the fact that it did.
Prep chronicles four years in the life of Lee Fiora, a girl from Indiana who gains a scholarship at Ault, a prestigious Massachusetts prep school. The book is structured episodically, effectively becoming a series of linked novellas that reveal how Lee struggles with the reality of life at Ault being very different from the rosy image presented in the glossy brochure, and the difficulties she faces finding her niche in the school as an outsider.
What Curtis Sittenfeld does particularly well here is capture something of the confusion and contradictions of teenage life, those years when identities are still being formed, the perceptions of others seem so vital, and friendships are constantly in flux. Lee is never quite sure what she wants from her life at Ault (‘I was always worried someone would notice me, and then when no one did, I felt lonely’ ). Her relationships with her fellow-students can be fluid: for example, the way Lee and Cross Sugarman, the class basketball star, behave towards each other resembles an elaborate dance – moving closer together, then further apart, then again closer; they never become anything as straightforward as boyfriend and girlfriend. Lee puts on an air to get by at Ault, then finds it taking over as her real self. One senses just how difficult these waters are for her to navigate.
Sittenfeld does something else with Lee’s character that makes the depiction of her more interesting – and, I suspect truer. Lee is not easy to warm to: she can be cold and selfish; she can push away people who like her. For all that she goes on about not having friends at school, Lee seems uncomfortable if people get too close to her – when one character tells her that her tendency to spend time alone is not as strange as she thinks it is (because anybody dedicated to a pastime has to spend time alone on it), to be understood in that way is ‘the most terrifying thing in the world’ (453) to her. Lee is a complex character, and it’s her characterisation which is at the core of Prep.
Now for the ‘but’ – I think Prep is too long to sustain the story that it wants to tell, particularly as Lee’s character doesn’t seem to change all that much over the course of the novel. I think it could probably still work at even half its length. That quibble aside, Prep is an incisive study of a teenager not just trying to fit in, but trying to decide if she even wants to fit in.