Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld


I always worried someone would notice me, and then when no one did, I felt lonely

It’s been nearly ten years since Prep was published, but that doesn’t mean it’s lost any relevance.  While Prep is a coming-of-age tale at heart, it’s also a deeply affecting story that may remind readers (especially female readers) of the personal triumphs and tragedies of adolescence.

The novel follows teen girl Lee Fiora, who attends the elite Ault School – a fictional Ivy League prep school in Massachusetts.  While Ault is known for producing some of the brightest and most promising students in the nation, the school is also known for its insulated and elite reputation, as well as astronomical tuition fees.

Freshman Lee Fiora is one of the few students on academic scholarship.  From South Bend, Indiana, Lee comes from an average middle-class family, and even though a student’s financial status is supposed to remain anonymous, students have a way of knowing who has money and who doesn’t.  From shampoo brands to comforter patterns, Ault girls can easily detect a fellow student’s socioeconomic status and treat them accordingly.

Needless to say, Lee is quickly overwhelmed by the social and academic pressure of her new environment, so she establishes herself as an “outsider” early on.  Of course, being a wallflower has its benefits.  Lee has more free time and is rarely pressured to attend nerve-wracking social events, but she also misses out on a sense of community and belonging.

At the same time, Lee develops a deep underlying embarrassment of her “ordinary” family.  She is by no means proud of her own feeling or behavior, but when you’re a teenager, it’s impossible to explain exactly why your parents are so mortifying and irritating.  The just are.  But Lee is a highly sensitive, analytical and hypercritical girl, so she over-analyzes herself to the point of exhaustion on a regular basis – especially when it comes to dating, romance, and gender roles.  In her never-ending search for confidence and assurance, she realizes the disadvantage of her gender in a place like Ault.  She says:

The interest I felt in certain guys then confused me, because it wasn’t romantic, but I wasn’t sure what else it might be.  But now I know: I wanted to take up people’s time making jokes, to tease the dean in front of the entire school, to call him by a nickname.  What I wanted was to be a cocky high-school boy, so fucking sure of my place in the world.

What a perfectly succinct example of the vast differences that boys and girls face in high school.  Guys are encouraged to display a sense of entitlement and overreaching confidence, and girls must silently prove their social, academic, and physical merits in order to be accepted.  Of course, this may not be the case for everyone, but I certainly remember high school as a constant battleground of rumors, whispers, judging eyes, and cliques.  In short, high school can be extremely detrimental to a teen girl’s self-esteem and sense of identity, and as Lee painfully learns, well-respected institutions like Ault are no exception.  No matter where you find yourself on the social ladder, no one is impervious to the physical and emotional horrors of adolescence.  It would be nice to always be sure of our place in the world, but sometimes you have to find your own way without the guidance of others…or else you fake it.

Lee Fiora is one of the most relatable protagonists I’ve ever encountered, and it’s hard to explain exactly why, so I’ll put it this way:  When we have regrets, we lean on nostalgia for support, and eventually our mistakes may not seem so defining after all.  This is what I love about Lee.  Since the story is told from adult Lee’s perspective, readers are never overwhelmed by unstable teen hormones flying off the page.  Instead, there’s a sweet and sour blend of memories, observations, and encounters that perfectly articulates every teenager and adult’s deepest fear:

 you need not go through your life unknown but that you probably still will – that is the part that’s almost unbearable

Prep-Sittenfeld ★★★★★
By Curtis Sittenfeld
Random House
420 Pages
ISBN 9780812972351

About Karli Cude

Karli Cude, previous moderator of Hooked Bookworm, is an avid reader and former bookseller. She graduated from the University of Tennessee with a B.A. in English Literature in 2010 and completed a Master’s degree in Library and Information Sciences in 2013.