Prep, by Curtis Sittenfeld

I am now reading Prep: A Novel, by Curtis Sittenfeld, which is one of those books that has been hard to miss lately. Member what I said about “buzz” a couple posts below? Prep had BUZZ. It was everywhere. It was on display in every bookstore, every newspaper had articles about it, etc. Prep, Prep, Prep, that’s all I ever hear. Sometimes I find buzz annoying because I feel like the people in charge (publishers, whoever) are trying to shove it down my throat. Like: let me decide, mkay? Is it a good book or not? Get off my back. I’ll read it if I feel like it! But a couple people I admire recommended Prep – I’ve seen it mentioned on a couple of the book blogs I read – (Erin at Critical Mass is one, and I think Anne mentioned it as well??) – bloggers who have similar tastes as mine in terms of literature … we speak the same language … so I finally picked it up.

The fact that I am reading so much recently published fiction is way out of character … but it’s where I’m at right now … and I had heard so much about Prep that I bought it a couple weeks ago and started reading it yesterday (now that I have The Historian and Life of Pi out of the way).

If I didn’t have, you know, a LIFE … I probably would finish it by tomorrow or the next day.

In it, there is such a specific ache of adolescence, particularly the adolescence of girls … it’s so specific – and yet I feel a breathless recognition from time to time reading it …

I’m not even sure if it’s really well-written or not. There are moments when I think it is. But what is really superb about it is its story. The story-telling aspects of it, the EVENTS – (like the whole game of Assassin – and what that brings about in our narrator … the whole haircutting phenomenon … ) the observations about human behavior – especially behavior of teenagers – and the events created – their specificity – their underlying sadness – I’m finding it kind of a sad book, nostalgic, melancholy … We make mistakes during our teenage years (well, we keep making mistakes, we’re human) … but there’s something REALLY poignant about the ones made during those years, because we don’t really know better, we are struggling to form ourselves, we are trying to break away from our parents, yet we still desperately need them … we look to our PEERS for validation … and groups of teenage girls can be such a snakepit. It wasn’t in my experience – I had great friends, who are still my friends – but I certainly saw that snakepit all around me. The viciousness, the TRICKINESS of girls. And to put our hearts in the hands of teenage boys? What?? You want to say: No! Don’t!! But of course we do, because that’s what you do when you’re a teenager. I gave my heart to DW – a boy I had 2 classes with – never went on a date with – but extrapolated everything I needed to know about his personality from my brief interactions with him. I LOVED him. And when I asked him to go to my prom and his response was (in a very kind voice, not mean at all -and that was even WORSE): “I don’t think I know you well enough.” I mean … it was unthinkable. It was so painful. Don’t KNOW you well enough?? What? It’s like that last scene in Summer and Smoke – although it’s the teenage version. John says to Alma, “In the 2 or 3 times we’ve been together …” and Alma says, “Only 2 or 3 times?” He says, gently, “Yes, it’s only been 2 or 3 times that we have ever been alone together, Alma” … and she says something like, “I felt that we even breathed together.” Ouch.

Prep is all about that stuff. An unrequited crush. On a guy who seems hopelessly cool.

There are certain sections where Sittenfeld just NAILS a moment. She describes it with such simple perfection that I think: “God, I so know what she is talking about there. I’ve never put it into words … but yes, I know just what she is talking about.” It’s quite remarkable. I’ve read a lot of books about teenagers … i continue to enjoy the whole YA “genre” of books … and I don’t think this qualifies as YA, it’s really a book for adults … but I think this is a great evocation of adolescence. Especially female adolescence. It’s kinda perfect. The narrator – Lee – is so consumed with how she is coming across, with how she is being perceived … that it actually manifests itself as cruelty, from time to time. She hurts people’s feelings because … she is so awkward and insecure. Like her interactions with Dave Bardo – the guy on the kitchen staff. She has no sense of self. She is consumed with self-consciousness – which, eventually, just seems like – self-absorption. Can you look outside yourself for just ONE second? Can you perceive that the entire world does not revolve around you, Lee? Can you see that nobody gives a crap that you’re from the Midwest – and if they do, then they’re assholes, and who cares about them?? But of course, Lee is only 15, 16 … she can’t yet. She has to make her mistakes. She has to hurt Dave Bardo. She has to hurt others. She has to go through all of that herself.

When Lee is a freshman at Ault (the prep school of the title) – she is obsessed with the seniors. They seem so carefree, so THEMSELVES … Lee pores over old yearbooks, looking thru the pictures, putting together the stories – Oh, so she dated him … then they broke up … but there they are as Homecoming king and queen, etc. … It’s such a specific sensation – but I so used to do that. As a freshman. The seniors seemed like ADULTS to me. They were not 17. They were … nearly grown-ups. They had relationships. They drove around in their cars, and had open campus. They didn’t even go to the dances anymore, because they were so beyond it. I was in awe of them. Curtis Sittenfeld remembers that moment with perfect clarity.

And then there’s an excerpt like this … which describes something kind of crazy, a sensation that doesn’t make all that much sense, and yet which I so understand and actually share. It’s a bizarre thing, I had never put it into words before:

I believed then that if you had a good encounter with a person, it was best not to see them again for as long as possible lest you taint the previous interaction. Say it was Wednesday and there was an after-dinner lecture and you and your roommate struck up some unexpectedly fun conversation with the boys sitting next to you. Say the lecture turned out to be boring and so throughout it you whispered and made faces at one another, and then it ended and you all left the schoolhouse. And then forty minutes later, you, alone now, without the buffer of a roommate, were by the card catalog in the library and passed one of these boys, also without his friend – then what were you to do? To simply acknowledge each other by n odding would be, probably, unfriendly, it would be confirmation of the anomaly of your having shared something during the lecture, and already you’d be receding into your usual roles. But it would probably be worse to stop and talk. You’d be compelled to try prolonging the earlier jollity, yet now there would be no lecturer to make fun of, it would just be the two of you, overly smiley, both wanting to provide the quip onw hich the conversation could satisfactorily conclude. And what if, in the stacks, you ran into each other again? It would be awful!

This anxiety meant that I spent a lot of time hiding, usually in my room, after any pleasant exchange with another person. And there were rules to the anxiety, practically mathematical in their consistency: The less well you knew the person, the greater the pressure the second time around to be special or charming, if that’s what you thought you’d been the first time; mostly it was about reinforcement. Also: The shorter the time that elapsed from your first encounter to your second, the greater the pressure; hence the lecture-to-library agony. And finally: The better the original interaction, the greater the pressure. Often, my anxiety would set in prior to the end of the interaction – I’d just want it to be over while we all still liked each other, before things turned.

And then this, about her friendship with Martha – this really struck a chord in me as well – I have great friends still from high school … and something about this really resonates:

And as for Martha – I never understood when I was at Ault why she liked me as much as I liked her. Even now, I’m still not sure. I couldn’t give back half of what she gave me, and that fact should have knocked off the balance between us, but it didn’t, and I don’t know why not. Later, after Ault, I reinvented myself – not overnight but little by little. Ault had taught me everything I needed to know about attracting and alienating people, what the exact measurements ought to be of confidence and self-deprecation, humor, disclosure, inquisitiveness; even, finally, of enthusiasm. Also, Ault had been the toughest audience I’d ever encounter, to the extent that sometimes afterward, I found winning people over disappointingly easy. If Martha and I had met when we were, say, twenty-two, it wouldn’t have been hard for me to believe she’d like me. But she had liked me before I became likable; that was the confusing part.

“she had liked me before I became likable”. Very astute.

And this might be my favorite passage in the book so far. I felt a chill reading it. I had a moment identical to this one. Identical.

“Where are you gonna go?” he said. “Harvard?”

“Yeah, right.”

“I bet you’re smart. Get all As.”

“I’ll probably go somewhere like –” I stopped. When Martha or I thought we’d done badly on a test, we’d say I might as well just apply right now to UMass, but invoking UMass as a last resort would, clearly, be a bad idea. “–to dog school,” I said brightly.

“What?” Dave looked across the seat at me.

“Like obedience school,” I said.

“You have a dog?”

“No, no, I’m the dog.”

He looked at me again, and it was a look I always remembered, long after that night and after I’d left Ault. He was confused and was registering a new piece of information and this was what it was: that I was a girl who would, even in jest, utter the sentence, I’m the dog. It was a good lesson for me. It was a while before I stopped insulting myself so promiscuously, and I never stopped completely, but still — it was a good lesson.

There’s something in her writing I really like.

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11 Responses to Prep, by Curtis Sittenfeld

  1. DBW says:

    Interesting thoughts. I just read “the perks of being a wallflower,” by Stephen Chbosky. Knowing you, I’m sure you are familiar with it. It’s a book that has been sitting on one of my bookshelves for a long time, and I finally picked it up the other day. I am a long time removed from my teenage years, and I had a hard time getting into the book at first. It seemed kind of silly, or unsubstantial at first. As I read along, I started to recapture a memory of what those years were like–not an adult perspective on it, but a young memory. The book started to make sense. The main character’s experience wasn’t anything like mine, but I could relate to him, and his struggles. I tend to remember my high school days as an easy time filled with a lot of nonsense and exploration. Reading this book reminded me that it was also a time of struggle–trying to find an identity and place for myself, trying to seem mature and confident when you aren’t completely, dealing with sex–its joys and humiliations, the many experiments with…uh, substances, etc. It was interesting rediscovering the mindset–the mixture of confidence and insecurity–of my youth. It’s strange to think I am that far removed from my own self at that time that it took me a bit to really remember what he was like. I think I should keep that in mind when I get too judgmental with my own son as he nears the teenage years.

  2. red says:

    DBW – actually, I don’t know that book at all. Is it a novel? Or a memoir? I should check it out – I love the topic of adolescence.

    I really relate to what you’re saying.

    I think so much of becoming an adult is trying to BLOCK OUT those years – hahaha – you know, you try on new selves until you find the one that fits best. I look back on myself as a teenager with horror – and yet – part of the whole Diary Friday thing is me really trying to embrace that old self, that old sillier dramatic self … because she’s the same me. Just a teenager. If I reject her … then I’m rejecting a part of myself. So it’s fun to kind of let her out … share her. Because I am so different now (uhm, thank God??) – but there are similarities.

    And the writers who allow themselves to remember what it was like … and can really express it … truly have my admiration. Paul Zindel is another one. That man has never ever forgotten what it was like to be a teenager.

    It’s kind of a gift.

  3. DBW says:

    I envy you that you wrote and kept your diary. I always look at those years through the prism of adulthood, even when I try not to. I wish movie cameras had been as ubiquitous then as they are today. I would love to see movies of my old group of friends. I can’t help thinking of myself then as I see myself now, but when I examine some of the asinine decisions and choices I made then, I know I was not the same person. Like you, there are a lot of similarities, but time, and(I hope)wisdom have shaped me mostly for the better.

    the perks of being a wallflower(all lowercase)is a “coming-of-age novel” that the bookcover compares to The Catcher in the Rye and A Separate Peace(don’t they all?). It’s written as letters to the reader, as if you are a person known to the author as someone who would “listen and understand and didn’t try to sleep with that person at that party even though you could have. I need to know that these people exist. I think you of all people would understand that because I think you of all people are alive and appreciate what that means.”

    It’s no Catcher in the Rye, but you would probably enjoy it. It’s a quick read.

  4. red says:

    Ohhh, it sounds lovely. I’ll definitely check it out. Thanks.

  5. red says:

    DBW – Oh God, to see myself on tape? As a 15 year old? How horrifying.

    I am shocked at how much I, deep down, loathed myself. I was so unsure of myself.

    And yet – I somehow managed to choose awesome friends, people who were good people – who are still my friends. Which was such a blessing in high school – to have a really solid group of good friends.

  6. DBW says:

    Well, I never suffered in the ego department, if you know what I mean. So, I would love to see myself and my friends back then. In high school, I had an incredible mop of hair about halfway down my back, and the general mindset to go with it–although, I was always a genetic conservative, even with the long hair. I remember writing a long paper in American Government arguing that Executive Privilege meant Nixon didn’t have to give up certain requested documents–much to the horror of my Government teacher. LOL. So, I was wrong about Nixon too, not just the use of hallucinogens. LOL.

  7. red says:

    I was wrong in my conviction that Duran Duran was bigger than the Beatles and would be around forever. :(

  8. DBW says:

    “I was wrong in my conviction that Duran Duran was bigger than the Beatles and would be around forever. :(”

    Ha. Remember when music and bands could inspire such comments, and lead to wild, emotional arguments–“Are you crazy? Close to the Edge is not only the best Yes album, but it is the greatest progressive rock album EVERRRRR,” or “Disco sucks!! I could never marry a man who liked disco.” I miss some of that. At times, it all seems so pedestrian in adulthood. Stable, but pedestrian.

  9. Aaron says:

    I heard an interview with the author on public radio back in July, and she was interesting enough that I scribbled down her name and title of the book… and then promptly forgot all about it. But you’re right about the BUZZ for some books–I’m always disappointed when a particular new book I’m looking forward to buying doesn’t even register on the NEW RELEASES shelf at the bookstore but is sent directly to the back shelves with the rest of the author’s stuff; and, meanwhile, some book by an author I’ve never even heard of clearly has some marketing money behind it.

  10. red says:

    DBW – I still kinda feel that I could not love a man who scorned the talent of Cary Grant. I really couldn’t. It would say something to me about his personality, it would show me his deficiencies.

    I am shallow, and yet … I have found that “respect of the talent of Cary Grant” is actually a pretty good gauge of character.

    I’m also insane.

    But yes. Duran Duran will NOT go down in history as being “as big as the Beatles” … not even close!!

  11. red says:

    Aaron – yeah, it’s interesting (and disheartening sometimes) to see how random the BUZZ can be.

    I don’t think Prep is breaking new ground or anything – but it’s a really interesting story, with some very very insightful moments. I love her observations.

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