Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

Prep (2005) (Quality Paperbacks Direct, by arrangement with Picador)
Curtis Sittenfeld
Grade: A-
Genre: young adult
Sex scenes: mild
Source: own
TBR RBC 2015: A classic YA novel 

When 15-year-old Lee Fiora is offered a scholarship at prestigious boarding school Ault, her parents, though puzzled about why she would choose this education, reluctantly allows their eldest child to move away. But boarding school isn’t quite what Lee envisaged after the glossy brochures and her preconceived ideas about what life and classes would be like. Very much an outsider for her four years at Ault, Prep follows Lee as she establishes a tenuous position in the school’s hierarchy, until one thoughtless mistake throws her life into the balance …

Prep is another one of my I-bought-this-book-because-I-heard-it’s-really-good-but-it’s-gathered-dust-on-my-shelves-untouched-for-the-past-[insert number of years]-years books. Now that I’ve read it, it’s one of those less frequent I-wish-I-had-read-this-sooner books, but I don’t think I could have appreciated it until now.

Prep takes the reader through four years at Ault, but there’s also seamless excerpts and flashbacks from both earlier in Lee’s life as well as her life post-Ault. The style is a bit unusual – I’m reminded a little of To Kill a Mockingbird where a grown-up Scout reflects on the events of that summer. In a similar vein, an adult Lee (Fiora, not Harper! You have no idea how old she is) reflects back on events and conversations during her time at Ault. A lot of the time, the narration might seem completely random and unconnected, but everything eventually has some kind of impact on Lee’s experiences at Ault and her future. Whether or not you like the style, Curtis Sittenfeld makes it work and the writing flows brilliantly.

I don’t think that this is poignant as such – reflective is a much better word. Lee never feels like she can fit in at Ault and is constantly wary of how others perceive her. Nothing new there from what you might expect from a particularly self-conscious teenager, but once you factor in the tight-knit sense of community at boarding school and the inevitable cliques, you’ve got a very uncomfortable life for Lee. What I like, though, is that from the few glimpses we get of her life now (super infrequent, though there’s more as the book progresses), you can tell that she hasn’t let her mistakes at school take over her life and she’s come to accept that she is who she is. There’s a lot of power in that seemingly minor realisation but it’s that which means that the tone as Lee is reflecting isn’t bitter and angry – but reflective. Powerful stuff.

Like I said, I don’t think I would have appreciated Prep if I’d read it several years ago. From the blurb, you know from the beginning that Lee will commit one mistake that throws her life into complete upheaval. There’s no indication of quite how serious her error is, or the ensuing damage and I have to confess that my imagination was going crazy. At every possible point, I was imagining the worst. When the moment did come, the build-up (at 400+ pages of tiny text, this isn’t an insubstantial book) almost made it all the worse. The ending did make me endlessly frustrated by its lack of finality, but given the rest of the book, that was probably expected. I was sorely tempted to lower the grade for the less-than-stellar climax, but managed to refrain. After all, this is timeless book that I’m going to be reading multiple times, probably cover-to-cover, in the years to come – just give me another five years before I start again. 

Image courtesy of Fantastic Fiction.

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