By Curtis Sittenfeld
Lee Fiora is a working class student on a scholarship in a fictional boarding school, Ault in Massachusetts. She is there because she saw a brochure of that school, saw prep school students in blazers, playing lacrosse and rowing, an OC world set in Massachusetts. Lee decides that is where she wants to spend the next 4 years of her life, away from her normal middle class home, where her mother works as a bookkeeper and her father owns a mattress shop. She gets the scholarship, convinces her bewildered parents and enters Ault, prepared to be part of that dream brochure.
Ault of course is a place where no one talks of money, but where money permeates every aspect of student life - from the choice of bedspreads in hostel rooms to the hotel parents stay when they come visiting. “The equation was that simple. Being rich, in the end, counted for the most - for more, even, than being pretty.” Lee is a misfit in class terms. She is an obviously intelligent young girl but in a world where she is forever looking back at what she sees as her own inadequate background, she never stands a chance. There is nothing in her normal mid-western teenage life that prepares her for the inadequacy she feels around her moneyed fellow students. She retreats. Into the dorm, into the library, into wherever she does not have to interact with the sociable, happening students of the school.
Written in the first person, Prep describes in sometimes excruciating detail, the inner workings of a teenage mind caught in a world that only heightens a lack of self-worth that is inherent in the age. “I always worried that someone would notice me, and then when no one did, I felt lonely..” and “I wanted to have boyfriends, I wanted my life to be sorrowful and complicated and unwholesome, at least a little unwholesome.” Instead Lee is left to be ordinary, someone who is forever trying to efface herself, not drawing attention, keeping out of the way of situations that ask more of her.
But Lee watches. She herself tries to fade into the background, but her skills of observation are impeccable. She desperately wants to belong, yet she sees and understands the underbelly of privilege. She sees how desperately unhappy or needy or shallow some of the girls and boys around her are. How there are even different types of money, some more dignified than others. And how there are some universal truths to teenage life - there will be suicide attempts, failures in love, friendships made and betrayed.
Of course things do happen to Lee too. She makes a friend. She has sex. She falls in love for the first time. She learns about the unrelenting pressure on a girl to behave a certain way for a guy. (“This was just the beginning! For years and years, there would be so many things I would do for a guy that I wouldn’t do in my usual life - jokes I wouldn’t normally tell, places I wouldn’t normally go, clothes I wouldn’t normally wear, drinks I wouldn’t normally drink, food I wouldn’t normally eat,..) Her heart is broken. She becomes famous in school for all the wrong reasons.
All through this, she maintains a sense of ‘outsider-ness’ that never ever disappears. Even as she reflects back on her years at Ault, her abiding memory is of unhappiness. Yet, as she says. “I remember myself as often unhappy at Ault, and yet my unhappiness was so alert and expectant; really, it was, in its energy, not that different from happiness.”
You start reading Prep as you would start watching 90210 - an insider view of a glossy, shiny, scrubbed world of rich teenagers. But Prep turns out to be so much more. It is an unedited look at real teenage life, with all its attendant misery and anxiety, all so needless to adult eyes but so terribly important to the sixteen year olds in question.Sittenfeld writes simply. Yet truthfully..