I find it funny, in retrospect, that I could relate so much with the story of an American teenager going to high-school in one of the most exclusive boarding schools in Massachusetts. Lee Fiora is a middle-class Midwestern girl who was a top student in her middle school and dreamt of bigger things. She was offered a scholarship to go to Ault, a select boarding school where every student seems to be: a-stellar in academic or sports disciplines, b-stunningly beautiful, c-rich, d-very cool, or e-all of the above. Unfortunately, in this particular small world, Lee is f-none of the above. Desperately uncool, awkward, lonely, and worse: ordinary.
In a way, it’s a traditional coming-of-age novel, with the expected school moments (making friends, the nasty girls group, the humiliation by a dreaded teacher, the school dance, the crush for inaccessible boys, the parents day). But it’s not traditional because Lee has nothing Pollyannaish about herself. She doesn’t mean to be nice and play fair, and things don’t turn out well in the end. She wants to be as cool as the rest, even if it means dumping a friend or being cruel to the school staff. She is a bit of a dork, but she doesn’t make efforts like a typical heroin. She stays home on Saturdays nights and eats chocolate, whining on her lot and reading yearbooks. She sounds like a true teenager to me, rather than a budding adult.
She’s not in turn idealistic and cynical as Tom Wolfe’s Charlotte Simmons is, because she’s described with a lot more empathy and sincerity: Lee’s voice throughout the novel is that of a wised-up, grown-up Lee who has eventually come to terms with her education. We soon guess that Curtis Sittenfeld is Lee Fiora, whereas I doubt that Tom Wolfe is Charlotte Simmons, despite the title.
It’s interesting to compare these two novels (both describing scholarship girls in elite schools, both being candid about sex, cheating, and other less-than-holy school behaviors) and I must quickly add that I loved them both, each in its way. But my guess is that the core ambition is different. It’s not a condemnation of exclusive prep schools, it has nothing of a satire, it has no larger ambition than to faithfully render the embarrassment of being a teenaged girl in a special school. And it does it well. That’s both the universality and the limitation of the book. With my own experience, I could relate to starting an elitist school far from home, to feeling out-of-place. At the same time, being a snapshot of a period, Prep has no true arch, no true ending of the story.