Were you ever fascinated with boarding school stories? My main introduction to them was through the Malory Towers series by Enid Blyton. My interest in them waned after I found myself reading about the exploits of the Wakefield twins, Jessica and Elizabeth, in middle school. Years afterwards, I’ve found myself reading another boarding school tale: the debut novel, Prep, by Curtis Sittenfield. Hollywood now has a movie for it in the works.
Lee Fiora leaves her family in South Bend, Indiana, after receiving a scholarship to the prestigious Ault School, a boarding school in Massachusetts. The intelligent 14-year-old was partly seduced by glossy brochures that advertised boys in sweaters seated by old brick buildings, neatly uniformed girls holding lacrosse sticks on neatly manicured lawns and the vast, grand chapel. On arriving at her dorm, she instinctively realizes her background makes her an outsider and is both daunted and captivated by her classmates who consider being lower middle class as an insult. On the site for the author, I found a description of Prep, which described it as a “… dissection of class, race, and gender in a hothouse of adolescent angst and ambition”. This is an apt description although it made the protagonist seem petty in her desires. But then again this is a story about a teenager that finds shame in poverty who finds herself in the social circles of children of wealthy families.
She gravitates towards other reclusive people for company but despite her cultivation of these friendships, Lee is critical of them. She adapts to the social system at Ault and keeps a low profile until her social place is developed enough to be accepted by the others. Unfortunately a secret romance starts to take precedence for her over everything else and it starts to make her question her friendship with Martha, her best friend and roommate. The relationship with her parents, especially her father, starts to crumble and causes family conflicts, she has disagreements with teachers and her grades begin to suffer and when an interview about Ault School with a journalist who twisted her words is published, her carefully crafted façade as an accepted senior is completely blown.
It is quite easy to get tired of Lee’s lack of respect and self-esteem for herself but then a lot of people are insecure as teenagers in social interactions and crave belonging. Her obsession with basketball player Cross Sugarman on the other hand is annoying given the way he basically uses her. As a protagonist, Lee is not an easy one to identify with but her crises are familiar to all and in consequence makes Prep an interesting read.