Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Prep-- Curtis Sittenfeld

I hated this book. Let me reiterate. I HATED, H-A-T-E-D this book! By the second chapter, which, by the way, was about 30 pages in, (This was a short chapter, the last was over 60 pages.) I was so sick of the main character, Lee, continually thinking that she couldn't speak to anyone because she didn't measure up.

Now, I know that many young women feel they don't measure up. They feel that they can't speak to boys or really have close relationships with anyone, but this poor girl went four years barely speaking to anyone. It really wasn't realistic. The young women I know, even the ones who have trouble in this area of self esteem still do not seclude themselves to the extent of speaking to no one and never sharing concerns or problems with anyone.

My first complaint: What thirteen year old would actually sign up for prep school on her own, especially a self loathing one? The premise didn't fit the character.
My second complaint: The names. AHHHH. Now, I get that this is a prep school, so the names might be a little different than your average book, but having Aubrey be a guy and Horton a girl just drove me absolutely insane. Among others are Aspeth, Cross, Dede, Ferdy, Darden, Conchita, and oh, I think there was a Jonathan. At least one normal name made the list. My third complaint was that the book moved at a snail's pace. I'm a fairly fast reader and it took me literally three weeks of reading every night to stomach this book. I can usually finish a book in a day or two, but not this monster.

Now I'm sitting here trying to figure out how to even discuss this book. I think I've partially blocked it out of my mind because I'm trying to think of some redeeming qualities to discuss and nothing is coming to me.

I guess I'll begin by trying to trace Lee's four years at Ault School.
Year one: Lee is a scholarship student, which essentially means that she is not of the same class as the rest of the students whose parents are multi-millionaires or CEOs of companies and the like. This immediately sets her apart from the crowd and starts that self loathing she's so desperate to revel in. By Freshman spring, she begins a game of assassin. This game consists of "killing" the other students with stickers. It is here that she could have taken advantage of the game in order to actually try to have a normal friendship with someone, but instead uses her incognito to her advantage. That is until she stabs her one and only friend in the back and is "killed" by her. Ha! Serves her right.

Year two: Her English teacher is a bit odd, and we later find out that she was not first choice by the administration at Ault. The kids torment her. Also notable in this chapter is that Lee starts to cut people's hair. She uses it as a way to get close to people without having to actually have a conversation or real interaction that might, God forbid, lead to friendship.

My favorite quote from this section goes like this: "This anxiety meant that I spent a lot of time hiding, usually in my room after any pleasant exchange with another person. And there were rules to the anxiety, practically mathematical in their consistency: The less well you knew the person the greater the pressure the second time around to be special or charming, if that's what you though you'd been the first time; mostly it was about reinforcement. Also: The shorter the time that had elapsed from your first encounter to your second,the greater the pressure. And finally: The better the original interaction, the greater the pressure."

When someone is so preoccupied by themselves in every situation, as Lee was, it's no wonder that she didn't have the capacity to make friends. She was too busy worrying what people would think or just how she should react in every situation. Some people, I know are that caddy and would judge on what you say or how you act, but those people aren't worth your time. For the most part, humanity is fairly forgiving when it comes to personality flaws.

Oh, yeah, this is also the year that she blows off her parents when they come to parents weekend.

Year three: She meets a guy who works in the kitchen. There is potential there, but now she's so preoccupied with trying to impress people she doesn't even like that she blows him off. Too bad.

Lee nearly fails math, but luckily, her roommate cheats for her and she passes and is not asked the leave the school as a result. I'm amazed that after nearly failing pre-calc, the next year, she surprisingly understands enough of both pre-calc and calc to pass with a B. Wow! Impressive. (Can you hear my sarcasm?)

It is also this year that she begins sleeping with Cross Sugarman. But, don't think that she can actually have a normal relationship of any kind. Oh, no. She asks him not to tell anyone and even goes so far as to intentionally ignore him other than in their secret rendezvous room.

Year four: This year mostly concentrated on her continually sleeping with Cross and then ignoring him. She struggles through the how-do-you-know-it's-love feeling about every other day until I wanted to scream!

The final straw is when she chooses to air her complaints about life and Ault to a reporter and pretty much kills the school's reputation singlehandedly. And just when she was starting to like the place that she's hated for three and a half years.

O.k. people, if I have to force myself to write any more about this book, I might fall into as deep a depression as the main character and sever any functioning relationships that I have out out of understanding of the character. I can't do that, so I'll end my thoughts now.

Let me leave you with one last thought.
If you are a young girl who has anxiety about forming relationships with people or has trouble talking to boys, please don't think that this book is the way it has to be. As I stated before, most humans are forgiving of small mistakes and by golly, they might actually like you if you just give it a shot.


  1. Hmm, Interesting comment!

  2. I am reading Prep right now, and although I still have around 70 pages before I finish, I have to say that so far, I completely disagree with your opinion of extreme "H-A-T-E"!

    What strikes me as particularly harsh in your review is the fact that you state (more than once) that the Lee's plight is not realistic. Perhaps you were fortunate enough to escape the paralyzing pangs of adolescence, but please know that not everyone shares in your luck. I relate to Lee on many levels, and find so many of her internal dialogues to be synonymous with those that I had as a teenager.

    And not necessarily a troubled teenager so much as one with heightened awareness of things. And here I'm not trying to say that I was in some way smarter than the average 17 year-old; rather that while some young adults ride by on the charm, the good-looks, the mischief, the defiance, the glamour, and humour of being that age, I was, for whatever reason, more sensitive to seeing it as a desperate facade.

    I relate to Lee's character, and I am almost comforted in knowing that, even if she is fictional, she was drawn up in an image similar to the one I resembled as an adolescent.

    I find your comment on the names in the book hard to take seriously. Did you go to a school where all the boys were called Tom, Dick, and Harry and all the girls Mary, Jane, and Beth? So the names in the story reflect the cultural and social diversity of the students at Ault. Is that a fault? I don't think so. Perhaps a paralell could be drawn here to celebrities using "eccentric" names for their children - maybe the unique names are meant to reflect the affluent families from which these students come.

    Even with that said, I went to a modest public school, population 250, and knew people with the names Satchel, Kash, Constance, Christmas, Tobin, and Cosmo. Picking at the names is a weak argument, is what I'm getting at, and diversity should never be considered a deficit.

    I understand that you see Lee as self-loathing, depressive, too introverted, too introspective, and therefore, and forgive me for jumping to any conclusion, annoying. Of course you are entitled to your own opinion, but the fact that you seem so reluctant to even entertain the possibility that Lee may be totally realistic in her demeanor and persona is frustrating.

    Many critics have compared Prep to Salinger's 'Catcher in the Rye.' Surely if you used to be an English teacher you've read the book. I'd be interested to know your opinion on Holden Caulfield (although it seems it may be difficult for you to wrap your head around his name) is. While I prefer 'Catcher..." I do appreciate the similarities between Lee and Holden, especially as comparable protagonists of opposite sexes.

    Sorry to have unleashed this anonymous novel of a comment on you, but I had to vent a little because your review truly awoke a sense of anger and frustration in me.

    Good luck with your writing career.

  3. I, quite honestly, do not think that Lee is anything like Holden. Lee is anxiety-ridden and obviously has social interaction problems, whereas throughout The Catcher in the Rye Holden just slowly loses his mind, any sanity he may have once had unravelling.

    For the record, I hate that book as well.

    I, personally, find Lee to be an extreme EXTREME case of a person with a social disorder. I myself was cursed through middle school and most of high school with a crippling shyness that kept me away from everyone. I do understand going to ridiculous extents just to avoid social interaction and being noticed in any way. But the fact of the matter is, I'm pretty much over it. I still fight it every day - it sits there in the back of my mind, lurking. I just have to remind myself that every single person I speak to is a human being, just like me. We are not that different. I broke my way out of that bad habit, and so could Lee, if she wanted to. The fact of the matter remains, however, that she does not. Lee is that antisocial because she chooses to be. She even has friends at different times. This should have proven to her that there was hope, it should have encouraged her to strike out and talk to more people. Instead she chose to remain the same. I think that's another thing that really ticked me off about Lee's character. Throughout the course of the book, in which a character is supposed to grow and change, SHE DOESN'T.

    So, yeah, this book is crap. That's probably the best way I can sum it up. Yep.

  4. I love this book! Totally realistic & insightful. Love the characterisation. I like the main character. Not everyone is an extrovert & it was wonderful to see an introverted character normalised instead of the usual predictable "bubbly" or melancholic one. I think Lee is complex & interesting.

    1. Lynne, You have a great point about the introverted character. I read this book so long ago, it's hard to remember the details. I think there's something about a quieter character that adds more mystery. That said, I still didn't care for the book. :)

  5. As I read through the book it became apparent to me that Lee's perception of herself and in particular the extent to which she was isolated and spoke to no-one (as opposed to actually being isolated and speaking to no-one) was skewed. I actually found this realistic. I too hated high school and felt acutely self conscious in the presence of the more outgoing, mopre glamourous, more popular kids. I thought of myself as tongue tied and silent and would go over and over in my mind small snippets of stilted conversations I had had with those other kids and all the bright witty things I would say if I had the conversation over again (but never did). It came as a surprise to me many years later to realise that they had regarded me as self contained and quitely self confident rather than deptached and crippled with shyness. (Unlike Lee I was very academic and enjoyed my studies which may have led to the perception of me as quitely self confident).

    The author gives us hints that Lee's perception of herself is not matched by reality. For example when Sun-Jin is hospitalised, Lee seems to be bewildered as to why she is being asked to help her out as she does not regard themselves as being friendly. However at the same time she recounts an exchange in their room in their freshman year where she is admiring Sun-Jin's skirt and has to explain "polka dots" which concludes with her offering to explain to Sun-Jin any English word she comes across which she does not understand - an offer which Sun-Jin evidently takes up because Lee goes on to discuss a number of words which Sun-Jin did not know and a number which she was surprised that she did know. She also mentions having been invited to dinner by Sun-Jin with her visiting parents on two separate occasions. Clearly the girls did have a friendship from their freshman year although Lee's very negative sense of herself does not allow her to appreciate this fact. I found it interesting that many reviews of the book cite the skirt passage as being insightful of adloscent girls (I think specifically Lee's feeling that it was easier to say nothing that to make an awkward compliment in social circumstances of which she was uncomfortable) but very few note that it was an early exchange with a character with whom Lee formed a life-long friendship.

    I actually found the relationship with Conchita harder to understand. I can see why Lee would be cautious about hooking up with a non-mainstream friend but I found it difficult to understand why a character like Martha, who may not have formed part of the glamourous central clique but who was clearly more self confident and well balanced than Lee, would deliberately hurt her friend (conchita) by choosing to room with another girl whom she hardly knew and had met only through Conchita. Ofr course the very fact that Martha wanted to room with Lee gives lie to Lee's perception of herself and how the other students regarded her even in her freshman year. To me Martha's treatment of Conchita is actually the biggest act of cruelty in the book but goes largely unremarked.

    1. Thank you for your well thought out comments. I appreciate your insight on how Lee's negative sense of herself skews all her relationships. It's so true that our view of self is not only influenced by others but influences everything around us.

      Thanks again for your comments.

  6. although this book is mighty long its really good

  7. this book confused me so much and after I read it, didn't know if I hated or loved it. When I finished, I felt hollow, I think its a very sad book, and I feel for Lee. Sometimes her choices did really confuse me though so I get your dislike. there's one quote from it that is so incredibly relatable for me "I was always terrified someone would notice me, and when no one did, I felt lonely" I think that's so insightful.

    1. The book does evoke strong emotions. I agree with that. And the quote you mentioned is one I remember standing out too. It went straight to the characters heart. I remember the whole story being hard to follow. The names threw me for a loop, and the plot was jumpy. I'd get through half a chapter and wonder how it tied into the rest of the storyline.

      Thanks for stopping by.

  8. I don't know why you hated the book but as for myself I have no serious hatred or affection towards the book. There were parts I liked and then there were parts which left me like 'What the heck'. Also I skipped a lot of the ending part but still I couldn't hate the book. I dont know why. It definitely is peculiar but it somehow reached the depths of my heart. I agree with you that Lee Fiora was weird but not unrealistic. She was a complex person to understand and her relationship with others was even more intricate.
    But anyways all the best for your book :)

  9. Ashwarya, Thanks for stopping by. I'm always amazed that this four year old post still gets comments. :) I wonder if I went back and reread it now if my thoughts would change. Anyway, I appreciate your comments.

  10. I don't necessarily like, or dislike Lee. Her extreme sense of insecurity is something I cannot relate to, but it doesn't make me hate her. I feel sorry for her. The book is actually sad because there are kids out there like her. I thought her analyses and witty insights were amusing. I thought the book was well written and think the author is talented. .....it seems ludicrous to call the book "crap" as someone previously did.

  11. I'm glad I read your review before I chose to buy this book. I have social anxiety, and I would hate to make it worse by reading a book where the main character never overcomes her social anxiety and actually makes things worse for herself in the end. It's still a book on my to-read list, but maybe for another point in my life.

  12. So sorry that I'm late to the post, I recently heard Prep was adopted by Paramount to be made in to a script. I read it a few years ago and I came across this blog.

    While you have some great points, I really enjoyed this book. The narrative is incredibly detailed it felt autobiographical at times. I see you felt that Lee's character was not believable, I disagree. Lee's thoughts were indicative of someone suffering from a mental health condition. While I've been blessed to have an overall positive experience throughout my life, I could relate to some of the things she mentioned. A lot of these things weren't something I ever thought consciously or verbalised, but as she mentioned them I found myself nodding in agreement.

    I saw a comment above suggesting that Lee doesn't grow or change too much, and I agree. However I think that's an element of realism. Sometimes people don't change. I also think she did not make friends by choice, and that also is an element of realism, not everyone wants to have friends.

    I can't remember in depth details about the book, as it was a while since I've read it, but I do recall the plot line being somewhat thin, which made it sometimes a little dull to read. Overall it's a great first published novel from an author.

    Hope you're having a good day!