Book Review: PREP

You know how there are those books you see for years and think about reading, not quite sure what you’d be in for if you were to pick them up? Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld was one of those for me.

I didn’t know anything about it, but I was confused by Prep.  The main character is a high school girl, so I assumed it was a YA novel. But that belt on the cover is pink and green, so that makes it chick lit, no? But wait–Tom Perrotta has a blurb on the front. So Prep is literary fiction now? Okay, so a man wrote literary fiction about a teenage girl’s experience at a prep school? Wait: Curtis Sittenfeld is a WOMAN?

I had the pleasure of hearing Curtis Sittenfeld speak at the Dallas Book Festival at the end of April. She read from her new book, Eligible, a retelling of Pride and Prejudice that’s part of The Austen Project. That’s when I knew; any author entrusted with Jane Austen’s most celebrated work was one I could ignore no longer. I requested Prep from the library. If not for those pesky tasks of eating, bathing, and child-rearing, I could have finished it in one sitting, despite its being a pretty long book. Lots of people hated Prep (or so the Internet tells me). I loved it. And I know I’m late to the party on this one, but here’s my review from Goodreads (with some very mild spoilers):


Wow, so Goodreads is telling me this is a polarizing book. Lots of people hated it. HATED it. And I get where they’re coming from, I really do. It would have been nice if Lee Fiora had matured into a better person by the end of her senior year. Lee’s lack of a talent, a drive, her very own *thing*, required a suspension of belief (so then why/HOW did she continue in the heady world of prep school for four years??). She is self-involved. Nothing much “happens,” unless you count the things that happen in Lee’s head, where worlds, interactions, backstories, etc. are created–and then uncreated by an intrusion of reality, the surprise of another person appearing and speaking, bringing Lee into the mundane present.

And yet. . . I really, really loved Prep. Lee is self-involved, yes—but not in a way that makes me totally hate her. She is not egregiously vain, but rather HYPER empathetic, constantly imagining what others think or feel (yes, okay, often what they think or feel about HER), and therefore unable to truly know/be herself. I wanted to slap her. I wanted to hug her. I saw just a little *too much* of myself in Lee’s downcast eyes, like when she longs for her crush to look past all of the other obviously hot girls and look deep into her own soul so he can see “all the reasons she is worthwhile.” HA! And yikes. Ehh, yeah–ninth grade Jenn, Lee Fiora/Curtis Sittenfeld has your number.

Which brings me to something I haven’t seen too many others mention in the reviews I’ve scanned: Prep is FUNNY. It’s so funny! Sittenfeld’s characters are perfectly, acutely drawn; she is incisive, often hilarious, and downright uncanny in her ability to render everyone recognizable. Lee Fiora’s family can’t stop talking about the behavior of their bowels whenever they’re together. Lee and her roommate refer to Lee’s crush as “Purple Monkey” whenever they’re outside of the dorm. Someone explains the significance of Bob Dylan to Lee in her freshman year, and then she spends the next four years dreaming of being a girl that boys think of while listening to Dylan songs in their dorm rooms. The humiliations Lee endures are primarily self-inflicted, and whether they occur in the real world or only in Lee’s anxiety-ridden brain, they’re all pretty darn funny when viewed through the lenses of time and space. It’s cringeworthy, yes, but also hilarious–like watching an episode of Freaks and Geeks. (I mean, thank GOD we can all laugh about high school eventually, right?)

And one more thing: I appreciated Sittenfeld’s subtle tackling of race/class issues, even though, as others have stated, she did not do this perfectly by any means. Given that Sittenfeld was in her early twenties when she wrote Prep, attempting to say something about the marquee-word topics of RACE and CLASS while excoriating herself on the page for her semi-autographical first novel–well? That takes some chutzpah. Yet even though Sittenfeld fell back a little too readily on stereotype (the African American kid plays basketball, the Korean girl is a math whiz, etc.), I thought she handled these “issues” with empathy. I am impressed. I am jealous. I count myself as lucky to have benefited from Sittenfeld’s public skewering of herself and plan to pick up anything else she writes in the future.


Have you read Prep? Love it or hate it?

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