- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 29, 2005


By Curtis Sittenfeld

Random House, $24.95, 400 pages


Curtis Sittenfeld took a risk when she chose to revisit well-trodden fictional ground, coming of age at an American high school, in her debut novel, “Prep.” For that ground is strewn with all sorts of clichs, from the teenage caste system depicted in John Hughes’ movies — popular kids lording it over nerds, stoners and punks — to the tortured introspection of Holden Caulfield or the young stars of “Dawson’s Creek.”

Indeed, “Prep” gives us a story made for critically acclaimed TV, at least in its broad outlines: Sensitive Girl From Humble Background Adjusts to Life at Fancy Boarding School. Lee Fiora, an ordinary 14-year-old from a lower-middle-class family in South Bend, Ind., fixes on the idea of going to boarding school, lured by glossy catalogs with pictures of “teenagers in wool sweaters singing hymns in the chapel, gripping lacrosse sticks, intently regarding a math equationwritten across the chalkboard… .I imagined that if I left South Bend, I would meet a melancholy, athletic boy who liked to read as much as I did and on overcast Sundays we would take walks together wearing wool sweaters.”

The prestigious Ault School (surely a pun on “old school”?) offers Lee a scholarship, and it is to Ault’s Gothic, manicured campus that her father drives her in his beaten-up Datsun the next September. This is where we might expect a series of trite “revelations” to follow, either lamely subversive (rich kids are snobs, pretty girls are anorexic) or mawkish. But Miss Sittenfeld — who teaches English part-time at the private St. Albans School in Washington — succeeds in imbuing her tale with shades of nuance, even as she describes characters whose archetypes are firmly embedded in the popular imagination.

So the queen of Ault is the splendidly christened Aspeth Montgomery, a gorgeous, long-limbed blonde (of course) who blithely takes the devotion of male and female admirers as her due, addressing even her teachers with an air of regal unconcern. Aspeth could be, but isn’t, the tyrannical “mean girl” of Hollywood stereotype. Her self-assurance is so solid, Miss Sittenfeld makes clear, she wouldn’t need to prop it up by bullying someone further down the food chain.

The author is a perceptive enough observer of what goes on inside the classroom to know that a story of victimizers and victimized wouldn’t just be boring, it would be false. Boundaries between cliques can be fluid, and besides, high-school outsiders are often responsible for marginalizing themselves. Lee is so self-conscious that she never goes to school dances for fear of looking dorky, and even gets stressed over what foods to eat in public. “I was glad that I was making chicken noodle soup, which was innocuous … a steak-and-cheese hoagie with onions … would be downright mortifying.”

Not surprisingly, she has trouble making friends, and in the loneliness of her first semester she develops a crush on a cool 12 th-grade girl, Gates Medkowski. (As someone who attended a WASP-y prep school not so long ago, I can attest: Miss Sittenfeld gets the pretentious, unisex names just right). It’s not uncommon for girls of 13 or 14 to idolize an older girl with romantic ardor, at a stage in their lives when sexual identity is still taking shape. Lee’s secret mooning over Gates’ yearbook photo and the pains she takes to draw a homemade card when Gates gets into Harvard resonate with truth.

But when Miss Sittenfeld tells of Lee’s subsequent confusion about her sexuality, she makes a misstep, having Lee fret over a pamphlet entitled “Am I gay?” — a case where less probably would have been more. Another such case is this description of Conchita Maxwell, Lee’s first friend at Ault: “I’d first noticed her in the dining hall several months back, in purple clogs, a pair of tights with horizontal purple and red stripes … and a red blouse with a ruffly collar…she resembled a member of a theater troupe specializing in elementary school visits.” (We don’t need to have the outlandishness of this outfit explained to us.)

Conchita is the daughter of a Texan oil tycoon and his Mexican wife, who lavishes attention and money on her child from afar, even hiring an interior designer for Conchita’s dorm room, whose too-perfect decorations — a pink neon sign spelling out “Conchita” and a dish of candy covered in dust — stir sympathy in the reader.

Lee is perhaps at her most convincing, her most real, in the stretch of the novel when she reluctantly befriends Conchita and then throws her over for a smart, red-haired girl named Martha — Conchita’s only other friend. When Lee breaks the news that she and Martha have agreed to room together the next year, Conchita bursts into tears: “‘It could be all three of us,’ she said. ‘We could get a triple.’ I could have said yes. Martha, I knew, preferred a double, but I was pretty sure I could talk her into a triple. ‘That wouldn’t work,’ I said. ‘Groups of three always fight.’” Like many of the cruelties teenagers inflict on each other, this one is harsh but not wanton. People still learning the art of friendship are bound to stumble at times, and Lee, half aware of this fact, forgives herself.

“Prep” meanders along at a leisurely pace dictated by the school calendar, not dramatic turns in the plot. Sophomore and junior years drag; even so, Miss Sittenfeld may have been right to let the story unwind slowly. For one thing, it gives her more time to flesh out the details of day-to-day life at Ault. This richness of texture is the book’s greatest strength. “Prep” evokes the many-sided communal life of a boarding school where cherished traditions foster genuine fellowship and loyalty. Ault comes with a full set, no doubt inspired by those of Miss Sittenfeld’s alma mater, the Groton School: an annual “surprise holiday,” a school-wide game called Assassin (in which players sneak up behind their targets and “kill” them with stickers), the Valentine’s Day flower exchange (pink carnations for friendship, red roses for love).

After Cross Sugarman, Ault’s popular basketball star, climbs into her bed one night, Lee discovers sex and gains some bitter wisdom about love. But at the novel’s end, has anything really changed? Lee is still crippled by self-consciousness; the longer she’s at Ault, the less excusable — or credible — this becomes, and instead she starts to look coldly self-possessed. Apparently, this girl who was resourceful and, yes, confident enough to land herself a scholarship isn’t interested in music, or sports, or any of her school subjects, or reading — which early on she professes to like so much.

Lee Fiora never quite grows into the likable young woman we want her to. Still, she is extremely vigilant, and those gimlet eyes register some acute social observations. “People genuinely liked him,” she explains of a black student, Darden Pittard; “and on top of that they liked the fact that they genuinely liked a big black guy from the Bronx.” The adult Lee acknowledges that, after her super-charged life at Ault, the rest of the world was a letdown. “Hardly ever did it matter if you brushed your hair before driving to the grocery store, rarely did you work in an office where you cared what more than two or three people thought of you. At Ault, caring about everything was draining, but it was also exhilarating.”

“Prep” is an impressive achievement for a first-time novelist. It constitutes a fully realized fictional world, and pulses with the scary exhilaration of adolescence — the only time of your life when everything matters.

Amanda Kolson Hurley is associate editor of Preservation magazine.

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