I went to the library the other day and got all the available books classified under the heading “Boarding schools — Fiction”. Sometimes a girl gets a craving. Prep is about a Midwestern girl called Lee who goes to a fancy Massachusetts preparatory school, Ault, where she feels terribly out of place because she is from the Midwest and because she is not rich but is on a scholarship. Because it might actually be against the rules of literature to write about a girl at a fancy boarding school who comes from the same background as all her peers.
Here is why I didn’t like Prep, and it is a criticism I bet Curtis Sittenfeld has heard a hundred hundred times: Lee is an awful character, and for a book that is clearly intended as a bildungsroman, Prep doesn’t show Lee coming of age at all. You start the book, and here is Lee, this passive girl who acts like she thinks everyone wants her to act, and she’s kind of racist, and you think okay, she’s going to change and grow up and become a better person. But instead of that, she never ever changes and she doesn’t become a better person at all. Just mopes around feeling inadequate and sorry for herself and resenting people. She recognizes the unpleasant ways that she behaves, but it does not inspire in her any wish to change.
My coworker, when she discovered I was reading Prep, said “UGH. STOP. It’s the WORST BOOK EVER,” but I do not agree. I agreed with her specific criticism — that Lee was a really unpleasant character and I didn’t want to spend one chapter with her, let alone all the chapters — but I didn’t think it was anything like the worst book ever. I didn’t like it but it wasn’t the worst book ever. My strong affection for boarding school books, and Curtis Sittenfeld’s writing and sometimes incisive insights, kept me going.
I mean, more or less — there were times when I got bored of the huge sack of nothing that was happening, and skipped ahead a bit to see if things were happening a few pages on (spoiler alert: not really). It wasn’t that the events could not have been made interesting; it’s that Lee was so unpleasant, and everything was filtered through her, and that made even dramatic events — a classmate’s attempted suicide — seem rather tedious and you wished the book would move on already.
In the interests of full disclosure, here is the personal bias that turned me permanently against the book: Lee’s a jerk to her parents when they come to visit on visitors’ day. I hate books where teenagers with kind and well-intentioned parents are mean to them. Lee hurts her father’s feelings and makes her mother cry and won’t introduce them to her best friend’s parents because she’s ashamed of them. Shut up Lee.
They read it too:
Iris on Books
Liv’s Book Reviews
She Reads Novels
A Book a Week
3 Evil Cousins
Book Nook Club
Reading Keeps You Sane
Books for Breakfast
Wow, I haven’t done that in a while. Let me know if I missed yours!