The Books: “Prep” (Curtis Sittenfeld)

Prep.jpgDaily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:

Prep: A Novel, by Curtis Sittenfeld

My sister Jean was the one who made me read this book. I had heard about it – I mean, you’d have to have been actively not paying attention to NOT have heard about it … It was one of those first novels that gets a tremendous amount of buzz (causing much envy in people like … oh … MYSELF), sits on the NY TImes bestseller list for a while, and has much press devoted to it. Sometimes that kind of buzz is a turnoff for me, especially with a first novel. But Bookslut also loved it – which usually means I will love it – and then my sister’s opinion clinched the deal. Apparently she was on vacation with her boyfriend (now fiance), and she stood in the shallow end of the pool, in her bathing suit, standing there reading the book. She couldn’t put it down. I love that image. They’re in some Caribbean island paradise, and she’s standing in the pool reading. Uhm, is your last name O’Malley? I thought so. But Jean has great taste in books – so I finally picked it up.

Like Jean said to me when we talked about it – the best thing about this book is the “voice”. It should be taught to young writers who are trying to learn “voice”. It’s as distinctive a voice as Holden Caulfield, as potentially exasperating. But you HAVE to keep reading. I was amazed by how well Sittenfeld calls up the anxiety-ridden perceptive paranoid world of the teenage girl – Sometimes I found myself just cringing reading the book, but also thinking to myself, “Bravo, Sittenfeld. You just NAILED that moment.” There are sections in the book which are as perceptive about teenage life as anything I have ever read – and it makes the book a pretty uncomfortable read, I have to say – because teenagers are awkward, and “playing” at being adults … and you want to save Lee from all the trouble you know she’s going to go through, but you can’t. Sittenfeld also has a gift – a GIFT, I tell you – for honing in on a small moment, and exposing it, dissecting it. Most of these moments are things that are totally familiar to me, I have had such moments … but I never thought to put them into words. The book has so many scenes like that. This is not a “Young Adult” book, although it’s about high school.

Lee, our narrator, as a kid, was obsessed with prep schools. She is from the mid-west, her family is not a privileged wealthy family, but she somehow gets a scholarship to a prestigious New England prep school called Ault. And so she goes. The book is broken down into the four years of high school, and so we go through the entire time of her education with Lee. The book is episodic – there is not one thruline – some characters come and go, others stay … It feels the way high school feels. Prep school is a whole different thing, though – and Sittenfeld, who went to prep school, just nails it. The huge class differences between the elite kids – born to go to prep school – and, say, the minority kids – most of whom have huge scholarships. Lee is not in either group. She’s a middle-class kid, not brilliant academically, not a genius athlete – just determined to be there. Lee is not a pleasant companion (I suppose very few high school girls are). She is riddled with self-consciousness. It is horrible to read. But God, I recognize myself in it. She is concerned over who to be friends with, because of what it will look like. She has crushes on gorgeous junior boys. She struggles. But there comes a time when you realize: you know what, Lee? You need to fucking grow up. Sittenfeld does not sugarcoat Lee’s social problems. Lee is not an ingratiating person – and I guess that was one of the main complaints Sittenfeld got with early drafts of the novel. Couldn’t Lee be a bit more likable? But Sittenfeld stuck to her guns, and I think the book is MUCH stronger for it. It’s not, perhaps, a fun read – as a matter of fact, the entire book made me wretchedly uncomfortable – but that’s why it’s literature, and not just fluff. Like my sister said: It’s the voice. What a VOICE this book has. Completely successful in creating this character.

Another interesting thing about the voice is that you can tell that Lee is writing it from the perspective of being an adult and looking back on her prep school years. It is not the actual voice of a high school girl … it is an adult woman looking back on and trying to put together her adolescence. There is a questioning tone to the voice at times, a psychological contemplation … “I think what was going on with me in that moment was …” etc. It’s very effective. It’s rather exhausting, too – because, you know, it’s high school. High school is exhausting. And to look back on it, and look back on how you behaved, your moments of cruelty, your moments of indifference or stupidity … It’s not fun!

Lee has friendships, but they are suffused with self-consciousness. She has a lot of anxiety about school because she is not a brilliant student. She also is kind of embarrassed by her parents when they come to visit (and her father, man – he is just so well portrayed!!) – it’s like she imbibes a certain snobbery that exists mostly in her own mind. Most of the kids around her are NOT snobs – but Lee, like most high school girls, wants to fit in, not be different, not stick out … so she keeps herself distant from almost everyone, because nobody is “good enough” for her in her own mind. And the “voice” I keep talking about – the adult Lee – has a sense of sadness in it – a longing to go back, to have a “do over” … because my God, what a waste. And don’t we all have feelings like that??

But mostly it is Sittenfeld’s acutely accurate observations about what goes on in social moments – the shifts, and silent signals – that is so superb. She really nails it, and I was in awe of much of what she was able to see. Those moments of clarity that even high school kids have – where they come out of themselves a bit – and realize who they are, or what really matters. Or also: that sensation of actually being seen. Having someone look at you, when you’re 15, and seeing you. It is the road to being an adult. Of coming outside your own self-consciousness and self-absorption, and joining the world. You get the sense (and this is another reason why this is a very good book) that Lee is not going to have an easy time of it as an adult, either. Her high school awkwardness is not just a phase – it is going to inform her life forever … and her regrets will be intense. Because it is hard for Lee to be her best self. It is hard for Lee to see beyond her own small circle. It’s hard for most teenagers – but Lee is worse than most. And she mis-reads people terribly, despite her good eye for behavior. She misses HUGE clues and makes giant errors – which have big consequences. You know those moments in life when you accidentally, through your own awkwardness, hurt someone else’s feelings? And you don’t even know how to apologize but there’s a frantic-ness in the need to make things right? But you don’t think you can? Prep is so full of such moments that it is near agony to read at times.

Here’s an example:

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. 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.

This is a first novel. It’s extraordinary. Sittenfeld writes with a confidence and authority that many more established authors would be jealous of. I haven’t read her second book, but I will. She’s definitely someone to watch.

Here’s an excerpt from Lee’s freshman year. I just think it’s so so accurate. I have LIVED these moments!! The impossible coolness of some kids in high school – the upperclassmen especially – who are dating, and probably having sex (we always speculated) … the ones who seem to have zero self-consciousness – and how on earth is that possible (I would think as an awkward freshman) … How could someone NOT care what other people thought? And it was always those people who were THE coolest (at least in my school). The ones who strolled around with some level of self-confidence – at least in appearance.

EXCERPT FROM Prep: A Novel, by Curtis Sittenfeld

All of this was still in the beginning of the year, the beginning of my time at Ault, when I was exhausted all the time by both my vigilance and my wish to be inconspicuous. At soccer practice, I worried that I would miss the ball, when we boarded the bus for games at other schools, I worried that I would take a seat by someone who didn’t want to sit next to me, in class I worried I would say a wrong or foolish thing. I worried that I took too much food at meals, or that I did not disdain the food you were supposed to disdain – Tater Tots, key lime pie – and at night, I worried that Dede or Sin-Jun would hear me snore. I always worried someone would notice me, and then when no one did, I felt lonely.

Ault had been my idea. I’d researched boarding schools at the public library and written away for catalogs myself. Their glossy pages showed photographs of teenagers in wool sweaters singing hymns in the chapel, gripping lacrosse sticks, intently regarding a math equation written across the chalkboard. I had traded away my family for this glossiness. I’d pretended it was about academics, but it never had been. Marvin Thompson High School the school I would have attended in South Bend, had hallways of pale green linoleum and grimy lockers and stringy-haired boys who wrote the names of heavy metal bands across the backs of their denim jackets in black marker. But boarding school boys, at least the ones in the catalogs who held lacrosse sticks and grinned over their mouth guards, were so handsome. And they had to be smart, too, by virtue of the fact that they attended boarding school. I imagined that if I left South Bend, I would meet a melancholy, athletic boy who liked to read as much as I did and on overcast Sundays we would take walks together wearing wool sweaters.

During the application process, my parents were mystified. The only person my family knew who had gone to boarding school was the son of one of the insurance agents in the office where my mother was a bookkeeper, and this kid’s boarding school had been a fenced-in mountaintop in Colorado, a place for screwups. My parents suspected, in a way that was only honest, not unsupportive, that I would never be accepted to the places I’d applied; besides, they saw my interest in boarding school as comparable to other short-lived hobbies, like knitting (in sixth grade, I’d completed one third of a hat). When I got in, they explained how proud they were, and how sorry that they wouldn’t be able to pay for it. The day a letter arrived from Ault offering me the Eloise Fielding Foster scholarship, which would cover more than three quarters of my tuition, I cried because I knew for certain that I was leaving home, and abruptly, I did not know if it was such a good idea – I realized that I, like my parents, had never believed I’d actually go.

In mid-September, weeks after school had started in South Bend for my brothers and my former classmates, my father drove me from Indiana to Massachusetts. When we turned in the wrought-iron gates of the campus, I recognized the buildings from photographs – eight brick structures plus a Gothic chapel surrounding a circle of grass which I already knew was fifty yards in diameter and which I also knew you were not supposed to walk on. Everywhere there were cars with the trunks open, kids greeting each other, fathers carrying boxes. I was wearing a long dress with peach and lavender flowers and a lace collar, and I noticed immediately that most of the students had on faded T-shirts and loose khaki shorts and flip-flops. I realized then how much work Ault would be for me.

After we found my dorm, my father started talking to Dede’s father, who said, “South Bend, eh? I take it you teach at Notre Dam?” and my father cheerfully said, “No, sir, I’m in the mattress business.” I was embarrassed that my father called Dede’s father sir, embarrassed by his job, embarrassed by our rusty white Datsun. I wanted my father gone from campus as soon as possible, so I could try to miss him.

In the mornings, when I stood under the shower, I would think, I have been at Ault for twenty-four hours. I have been at Ault for three days. I have been at Ault for a month. I talked to myself as I imagined my mother would talk to me if she actually thought boarding school was a good idea. You’re doing great. I’m proud of you, LeeLee. Sometimes I would cry while I washed my hair, but this was the thing – this was always the thing about Ault – in some ways, my fantasies about it had not been wrong. The campus really was beautiful: the low, distant, fuzzy mountains that turned blue in the evenings, the perfectly rectangular fields, the Gothic cathedral (it was only Yankee modesty that made them call it a chapel) with its stained glass windows. This beauty gave a tinge of nobility and glamour to even the most pedestrian kind of homesickness.

Several times, I recognized a student from a photograph in the catalog. It was disorienting, the way I imagined it might be to see a celebrity on the streets of New York or Los Angeles. These people moved and breathed, they ate bagels in the dining hall, carried books through the hallways, wore clothes other than the ones I’d memorized. They belonged to the real, physical world; previously, it had seemed as if they belonged to me.

In big letters across the top, the signs said, Drag yourself out of the dorm!!! In smaller letters, they said, Where? The dining hall! When? This Saturday! Why? To dance! The paper was red and featured a copied photograph of Mr. Byden, the headmaster, wearing a dress.

“It’s a drag dance,” I heard Dede explain to Sin-Jun one night. “You go in drag.”

“In drag,” Sin-Jun said.

“Girls dress as boys, and boys dress as girls,” I said.

“Ohhh,” Sin-Jun said. “Very good!”

“I’m borrowing a tie from Devin,” Dede said. “And a baseball cap.”

Good for you, I thought.

“Dev is so funny,” she said. Sometimes, just because I was there and because, unlike Sin-Jun, I was fluent in English, Dede told me things about her life. “Who are you borrowing clothes from?” she asked.

“I haven’t decided.” I wasn’t borrowing clothes from anyone because I wasn’t going. I could hardly talk to my classmates, and I definitely couldn’t dance. I had tried it once at a cousin’s wedding and I had not been able to stop thinking, Is this the part where I throw my arms in the air?

The day of the dance – roll call and classes occurred even on Saturday mornings, which was, I soon learned, a good detail to break out for people from home, to affirm their suspicion that boarding school was only slightly different from prison – neither Gates nor Henry Thorpe was at the desk when the bell went off announcing the start of roll call. Someone else, a senior girl whose name I didn’t know, rang the bell, then stepped down from the platform. Music became audible and students stopped murmuring. It was disco. I didn’t recongize the song, but a lot of other people seemed to, and there was a rise of collective laughter. Turning in my seat, I realized the source of the music was two stereo speakers, each being held in the air by a different senior guy – there weren’t enough desks for everyone in roll call, so juniors and seniors stood in the back of the room. The seniors seemed to be looking out the rear doorway. A few seconds passed before Henry Thorpe made his entrance. He wore a short black satin nightgown, fishnet stockings, and black high heels, and he was dancing as he approached the desk where he and Gates usually stood. Many students, especially the seniors, cheered, cupping their hands around their mouths. Some sang and clapped in time to the music.

Henry pointed a finger out, then curled it back toward his chest. I looked to see where he’d pointed. From another door at the opposite end of the room, the doorway near which the faculty stood, Gates had appeared. She was dressed in a football uniform, shoulder pads beneath the jersey and eye-black across her cheekbones. But no one would have mistaken her for a guy: Her hair was down, and her calves – she wasn’t wearing socks – looked smooth and slender. She, too, was dancing, holding her arms up and shaking her head. By the time she and Henry climbed on top of the prefects’ desks, the room was in an uproar. They came together, gyrating. I glanced toward the faculty; most of them stood with their arms folded, looking impatient. Gates and Henry pulled apart and turned so they were facing opposite directions, Gates swiveling her hips and snapping her fingers. Her unself-consciousness astonished me. Here she was before a room of more than three hundred people, it was the bright light of day, it was morning, and she was dancing.

She gestured toward the back of the room, and the music stopped. She and Henry jumped down from the desk, and three seniors, two girls and a guy, climbed the three steps to the platform. “Tonight at eight o’clock in the dining hall ….” one of the girls said.

” … it’s the eleventh annual drag extravaganza,” said the other.

“So get ready to party!” shouted the guy.

The room erupted again into wild cheers and applause. Someone turned on the music, and Gates grinned and shook her head. The music went off. “Sorry, but the show’s over,” she said, and students booed, but even the booing had an affectionate sound to it. Gates turned to the three seniors next to her. “Thanks, guys.” She picked up the clipboard where the names of the people who’d signed up to make announcements were listed, and said, “Mr. Archibald?”

Mr. Archibald stepped onto the platform. Just before he spoke, a guy from the back of the room yelled, “Gates, will you dance with me?”

Gates smiled a closed-mouth smile. “Go ahead, Mr. Archibald,” she said.

His announcement was about soda cans being left in the math wing.

Gates passed the clipboard to Henry.

“Dory Rogers,” Henry called, and Dory said the Amnesty International meeting had been switched from Sunday to six to Sunday at seven. During the five or six other announcements, I found myself waiting for more theatrics – I wanted to see Gates dance again – but it appeared the show really was over.

After Henry had rung the bell, I approached the platform. “Gates,” I said. She was putting a notebook in her bag and didn’t look up. “Gates,” I said again.

This time, she looked at me.

“Your dancing was really good,” I said.

She rolled her eyes. “It’s always fun to see people make fools of themselves.”

“Oh, no, you weren’t making a fool of yourself. Not at all. Everyone loved it.”

She smiled, and I understood that she had already known everyone loved it. But she hadn’t been asking for a compliment, as I myself was whenever I said something self-effacing. It was more like – this dawned on me as I looked at her – she was pretending to be regular. Even though she was special, she was pretending to be like the rest of us.

“Thanks,” she said. “That’s nice of you, Lee.”

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6 Responses to The Books: “Prep” (Curtis Sittenfeld)

  1. charlene says:

    oh my gosh YES. I actually only read about half of this book (I skipped a large part of the middle, and will have to go back someday) not because it was bad — it was brilliant — but because it was so very painful. She gets high school (well, for me, all this happened in college) so exactly right, and I had one too many moments of “yes, YES, ouch!” The total and utter self-consciousness. Ow.

    It’s funny you excerpted those parts about friendship (and, oh my gosh, I was totally like that about the positive interactions) – I have a really good friend from college of whom I had thought for years, “Why does she like me? She’s way cooler than I am” and not so long ago found out she felt exactly the same way. And we were so regretful because we had let that get in the way of our friendship for those years… not that we weren’t good friends before, but we were careful in a way we aren’t anymore.

  2. red says:

    charlene – Yes yes yes it is one of the most perceptive books I’ve read in a long time. I won’t give it away – but at the end – she realizes, through a comment from someone else, just how much time she had wasted being self-conscious … it’s like the veil pulls back … amazing moment, Sittenfeld just captures it perfectly. It really is an amazing book. So specific it’s like looking at high school under a microscope!

  3. jen says:

    I think you were reading my mind/thoughts. I need a book to read right now and this sounds like the absolute perfect book for my mood right now!

    Can’t wait to go pick it up and read away!

  4. red says:

    Jen – I’m psyched for you! It is SUCH a good read!!

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