The boarding school novel has long been supported by the grandfatherly twin pillars “Catcher in the Rye” and “A Separate Peace.” Both classic books show a world of boys in seclusion — young men of idle wealth tucked away in corners of New England, playing lacrosse and biding their time until their eventual move to New Haven or Princeton.
With her debut novel, “Prep,” Curtis Sittenfeld draws a new picture of the classic East Cost boarding school. First, her protagonist isn’t particularly snobby or precociously intelligent; Lee Fiora is a Midwestern girl who finds herself at Ault School, overwhelmed academically and envious of each rich Greenwich girl who looks like “she had spent the afternoon playing tennis in the sun.” Second, nothing really happens. With no cataclysmic personal events or historical backdrop, the reader is left to witness the minute details of daily life in a boarding school. Finally, the characters are shaded in wonderfully gray tones. Lee isn’t completely likeable and even the most frigid of the privileged ice queens occasionally shows flashes of tenderness.
Sittenfeld initially sets Lee up as a pure observer — a watcher who catalogues the everyday behaviors of Ault notable figures. For all the unique elements often mythologized and romanticized about boarding schools, Sittenfeld never relies on the blunt stereotype. After all, on some level high school is high school.
Expectedly, Lee, ever the blue-collar scion, cycles through a series of romances: her awkward courting with a dinner-hall worker, the recognition of a lesbian friend and, of course, her book-long passion for Cross Sugarman, the WASP-y, flaxen-haired golden boy of her class. The author captures the often un-romantic, crudely sexual mechanics of juvenile relationships with unnerving accuracy.
Sittenfeld’s canny eye and unflinching storytelling lend an air of authenticity (the author herself attended Groton and now teaches at St. Alban’s) that end up as “Prep’s” biggest selling point. She handles the details of oft-misunderstood places with a calm restraint and a surprisingly aged reserve. The smell of a dining hall at night, the endless nightly rituals that mark the close of day, the shape of the green spaces around stately classrooms — Sittenfeld captures the places that prep-school graduates remember best.
The characters in the novel are, by and large, plausible but sometimes fall into their expected shapes. Readers may find the protagonist’s constant social climbing and working-class resentment grating. Additionally, few of the characters are without major secrets; It’s the only true gap in the novel’s believable narrative.
Instead of simply rehashing the well-worn stereotypes of older prep-novels and films, Sittenfeld takes a fresh look at modern schools and finds wounds in new places. She’s effectively retold the story of a fascinating subset of American teenagers with realism and brutal honesty.
Book Review: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars