Transworld Summer Reading Challenge Review #3: Prep – Curtis Sittenfeld

Prep is the story of a few years in the life of an insecure teenager navigating the pitfalls of the privileged community of Ault, an elite New England boarding school. Lee Fiora is just 14 when she arrives at the school and hampered by a combination of bitchy cliques and her own self-consciousness, she struggles to find a place where she belongs and deal with her feelings for the most popular boy in the year, Cross Sugarman.

Ridiculous names aside, you know going in that there are only three ways the unpopular girl lusting after the high school heartthrob can end. They get it together and she becomes incredibly popular, they get it together and it ends badly or they never get it together. I ruled out the first thanks to the book’s general tone, but to avoid spoilers I won’t tell you which of the other two it comes to.

Lee is extremely well-drawn, so naturally she’s deeply annoying. Frankly if most of us look back at our behaviour during our teenage years we’d probably find ourselves to be pretty irritating as well. She comments once that a particular friend “liked her before she became likeable” and it’s a very shrewd observation. Her self-absorption is inevitable and irksome, and her moments of introspection are on-the-money cringe inducing. Scenes with her parents, where their Indiana suburban simplicity is thrown into sharp relief against the rich, untouchable parents shepherding their Boston born and bred offspring around campus are particularly sharply observed.

To a certain extent, Prep is done a disservice by its book jacket, screaming with references to Salinger and The Secret History. While I could possibly accept a (limited) comparison to the latter in the way that Lee is the awkward outsider in the Richard role, I think trying to make Fiora into Caulfield is a huge error. And that’s not a criticism; Prep is much more enjoyable when you accept it for what it is and don’t try to pigeonhole it. I have a bit of a loathing for “if you like this, then…” recommendations, anyway. Authors aren’t cookie cutters and even within a particular genre there’s huge variation.

As a penetrating yet amusing take on teenage alienation it’s a worthwhile read that, if nothing else, ought to generate a few uncomfortable moments of self-aware reminiscence.

Find out more about the Transworld Summer Reading Challenge. Please note that opinions are my own and unbiased; I am not required to give the books a positive review.

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