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Prep ~ Curtis Sittenfeld

August 5, 2009

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Publisher: Random House

420 pages

ISBN: 9780812972351

In an alternate universe, Tom Wolfe’s Charlotte Simmons was born in Indiana and wrote her story from prep school instead of college. Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep is so similar to Wolfe’s novel, I had to keep flipping to the front cover to make sure that I wasn’t rereading it.

The stories are slightly different in paper work, mostly in that Lee, the story teller in Sittenfeld’s novel is thirteen when she decides to go to New England for boarding school and Charlotte is 18 when she leaves her rural southern town for a Duke-like campus. Both girls leave lower middle class homes in relative obscurity where they had been the top of their class. They soon find themselves in the middle of academic and financial excess, completely out of their element. Instead of thriving in the environments presented, both flounder to the point of self destruction.

The commentary on class division and social culture wars are similar and the self doubt is rampant through both. Prep sings a slightly more authentic tune as it takes place over the course of four years versus Wolfe’s one, fleshing out characters and allowing the observer to watch Lee grow out of some of the crippling social anxiety she had when she arrived at school.

I think that my biggest problem with the “shy girl goes to school” issue is that both Lee and Charlotte are so completely disarmed by their own insecurities that neither study rings true as teenage angst but rather manifests as a deeper, more serious social disorder and I found myself less sympathetic and more concerned.

Now, this may be because I am fairly extroverted and while i was never the head cheerleader or my sorority president, I have very rarely been a true wall flower. Perhaps both novels are accurate portrayals of shy students. In Lee’s case, though, her loner habits appeared after her arrival at Ault so it seems less likely that she would really go from a happy social girl at her public high school to a serious recluse.

I think the other problem is that while I enjoyed the cultural commentary and the level of mockery at Society’s expense, it comes at a bad time. Prep was published in the year between The O.C. and Gossip Girl, two successful tales of a youth out of water, scooped out of lower middle class obscurity to observe and dissect the pleasures and perils of the wild elite. Certainly the waiting public never gets tired of the political Cinderella story but it does seem that the market is a bit saturated at the moment or was at the moment when Prep arrived.

All of this in mind, had I not read Charlotte Simmons or had I shied away from my T.V. over the last five years, I think that I would rave about Prep. While it has several notable flaws, the writing is not one and I think that given a different subject matter, I would definitely pick up something else by Sittenfeld. Don’t over look this book but do keep in mind that it is nothing to write home about on the administration letter head.

One Comment leave one →
  1. August 16, 2009 7:22 pm

    I read Prep when it first came out and remember really enjoying it. My bookclub just read American Wife by her. The subject matter was not something that would normally interest me (fictionalized “biography” of Laura Bush — I’m not big on bios of any kind) and I found it flawed in places but, like you said, the writing wasn’t one of the flaws. If you’re looking for something different by Sittenfeld, this definitely fits the bill.

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