Review: Prep, Curtis Sittenfeld

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
Leeswammes’ Blog
American Bibliophile
3 Evil Cousins
Book Nook Club
Hope’s Bookshelf
Reading Keeps You Sane
Rat’s Reading
Books for Breakfast

Wow, I haven’t done that in a while. Let me know if I missed yours!

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27 thoughts on “Review: Prep, Curtis Sittenfeld

  1. I also felt underwhelmed by this book, and when I read it, I was left feeling almost like I had wasted my time. I liked American Wife much better, and think that the author had grown a lot by the time she wrote it. I didn’t like Lee and felt she was really self absorbed, and like you said, she didn’t grow at all, which was disappointing. Sorry that you didn’t like this one. I know exactly how you feel.

    • See, I had thought that this meant I didn’t need to read American Wife, which I am mildly disinclined to read because I, well, just because I am not that crazy about Laura Bush. Which is such a silly reason! And maybe I should rethink it and give Curtis Sittenfeld another chance.

  2. Hi Jenny! We love you too! And also, you can be VERY proud of us right now because we had Birthday Present WIN this weekend!

    Also, this book sounds dreadful. Thanks for the warning. I am not opposed to Curtis Sittenfeld as a writer, so if I had seen this, I might well have taken it home to clutter my book shelves and my brain.

    • You did! I know you did. But I would have been proud of you anyway because I love you.

      I’m glad you are not taking this home to clutter your bookshelves, although you could probably have gotten it, and gotten rid of it, on PaperbackSwap.

  3. I read this ages ago in college & felt it was v blah. And disturbing.

    >>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.

    LOL Now I’m going to spend ages trying to think of an exception. :p

    • What disturbed you, out of curiosity? I didn’t find anything particularly disturbing, just unpleasant.

      Tell me any exceptions you think of. I would be interested to hear.

      • I remember the boys all debating whether each girl tasted like cheese or fish, and the gender/sexual games that were played were just so sad. & like you said, the way she treats her parents and just Lee’s whole attitude to life really bothered me. I wasn’t like that in high school! :p

        Disturbing was probably the wrong word; unpleasant sums it up better.

  4. Does Enid Blyton count? She wrote all those English kid’s books about boarding schools (the Malory Towers series, the St. Clare’s series) that I read to tatters as a kid, and all those girls come from the same background. I mean, there’s the occasional super-rich girl or scholarship girl, but she’s never the point of view character. Oh, man, now I want to go home and read the Malory Towers books again. Not that they are literature. They’re formulaic kid’s books. But boy did I love them when I was ten.

    • Yes, she counts! I have never read Enid Blyton and cannot say. I think I missed the window for reading them, unfortunately. I always feel sad when that happens and shall try to supply my own putative children with Enid Blyton books.

  5. Geez Louise you are correct. Lee was absolutely insufferable. And I was totally willing to gush about this book even before I read it. ‘Cuz you know…BOARDING SCHOOL BLISS. Can’t wait to hear what other boarding school books you picked up!

    • I’m afraid you’re going to be disappointed! It wasn’t that many, only three? because I had read a lot of boarding school books already?, and I read one of the others and the third one sort of bored me. Not exactly a boarding school books bonanza.

    • I actually do this all the time, depending on what I have a craving for. My present library lets you browse by subject heading, so you don’t have to know exactly what you’re looking for in order to run a search. It is handy.

    • I cannot speak to Malory Towers. You will have to ask Proper Jenny and see what she says. I’d…be inclined to say worse. Just because the main character was so, so unpleasant.

      • Malory Towers is a kid’s series! They’re formulaic and simple, with ideas about playing pranks and having midnight feasts and not peaching to the headmistress. If you read them for the first time when you were an adult, you would think, “Oh, how silly.” But for a, say, nine or ten-year-old, they’re great — funny and satisfying, and for an American in the present day, exotic. Prep sounds like a completely different, and much worse, cup of… I won’t say tea because tea is nice. Some beverage other than tea.

  6. I hated this book too. It nearly turned me off Sittenfeld but a couple of years ago my real-life group read American Wife and we really liked it, so I’ll give her another chance.

    I completely agree, Lee was just a brat and needed a good smack upside the head.

  7. Yeah, I haven’t read this one because Curtis Sittenfeld made herself look like an ass in the NYTimes when she reviewed another author’s “chick lit” book and threw around some really backhanded remarks and the word slut, I believe it was. I just tend to think she’s a bitch now and totally don’t even want to engage in her books.

    Biased is me!

  8. Reading Prep (which I’ve done about three times now, I think–I do not know why. I am a glutton for punishment, I guess) always makes me feel sick to my stomach, for pretty much the same reasons you didn’t like it. She’s so awful and she just doesn’t change or learn from ANYTHING–at least not that we see; the epilogue seems to imply otherwise.
    I understand kids being shitty to their parents the way she was because kids can be assholes, but IIRC, she never regretted it, or felt bad about it, and that made it so much worse. Pretty much the same goes for every shitty interaction she had with someone. Bleh.

  9. I felt decidedly blah about this book, particularly the last half (or 3/5ths) of it. AS much as I felt I was recognising part of “being a teenager” in the first pages, it got to go on for so looooong… And Lee just did not seem to make any progress at all. I don’t know. You summed it up much better than I did. I agree, it is not the worst book ever, but I would probably ask someone if they were reading it is they were enjoying it, and if not, recommend them to pick up something else.

    I gather you have read more by Sittenfeld? Which book would you recommend by her?

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