In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that I first read Prep only days after landing in Orlando in 2006. I was drawn to it purely because of its unusual cover (not the one pictured immediately below – more on that later) and even mentioned my reading it in Mousetrapped. Alas, my copy got lost somewhere between the Sunshine State and the Emerald Isle, and so when I saw it on the list of choices for Transworld’s Summer Reading Challenge, I saw my chance to replace it. Plus, I was rather in the mood for a re-read. I’m a reading goldfish: with only a few exceptions, I can rarely recall the specifics of any book I read more than a month ago, but this works in my favor as I get to enjoy the good ones all over again anytime I like.
“Lee Fiora is a shy fourteen-year-old when she leaves small-town Indiana for a scholarship at Ault, an exclusive boarding school in Massachusetts. Her head is filled with images from the school brochure of handsome boys in sweaters leaning against old brick buildings, girls running with lacrosse sticks across pristine athletic fields, everyone singing hymns in chapel. But as she soon learns, Ault is a minefield of unstated rules and incomprehensible social rituals, and Lee must work hard to find – and maintain – her place in the pecking order.”
My complaint about my last Summer Reading Challenge book, If I Stay by Gayle Forman, was that the author had seemingly forgotten what it was like to be a teenager. Sittenfeld, thankfully, has no such problem. The feelings, the mindset, the environment, the dialogue – it all feels so real that she must have kept meticulous adolescent notes, has the emotional memory of an elephant or she’s really 16 and only pretending to be a Grown Up. Lee’s over-analytical narration is as mired in insecurity as it is peppered with recognizable truths (in the first few pages she recalls, ‘I was always worried someone would notice me and when no one did, I felt lonely’) and her place neither at the top or bottom of the popularity totem pole but hovering somewhere in the middle makes it more authentic, like a movie where the dance troupe/boxer/cheerleading squad doesn’t win the big competition in the end but only comes second. As for the microcosm of Ault, it’s so well imagined that I’d be shocked if Sittenfeld didn’t attend such a school herself. I read it in two late night sittings and having reached ‘The End’, felt that I too had just graduated and was now free to explore the wider world.
There’s only one thing I don’t like about this book (and yes, there is only one thing) and that’s the awkward and uncomfortable memories reading it can’t help but dredge up from a time when every irrelevant thing seemed all important. I’ve always said that the best thing we could do to lower the teen suicide rate is to stop telling them that they’re living the best years of their lives. I wish I could go back to my 16-year-old self, grab her by the shoulders and say, ‘In the scheme of things, none of this is going to matter. And don’t ever cut your hair right after you break up with someone. Or taste mayonnaise and chips together – you’ve no idea how much trouble that’ll get you in later.’ Everything that happens in your adolescence seems so monumentally important because at the time, it is. Your life is operating in such a tiny bubble that you can’t even spell perspective, let alone exercise it; you think that if you aren’t the cool girl with designer clothes, perfect grades and a gorgeous boyfriend right now, you’ll never be. Capturing this mindset is where Prep really excels and leaves similar books behind it in its dust.
Prep was a New York Times bestseller and longlisted for the Orange Prize, but there’s a distinct odor of desperation emanating from this edition that leads me to believe it didn’t enjoy such great sales figures on this side of the Pond, and now the idea is to ride the coat tails of Sittenfeld’s more successful American Wife by reissuing Prep with a matching cover. (This sort of thing really annoys me. Do the powers that be think readers are too dumb to find out if the author has written other books? Do they think we need a matching cover to spot them?)
Unfortunately, this new cover is a complete disaster. First of all, it in no way relates the book’s personality. I’m sure plenty of readers in the 18-24 demographic would love this book, but this cover makes it look like something their grandmother would read met a Mills and Boon on a drunken night out and made a baby. It is so unappealing. Second of all, in my head the main character does not look like that, i.e. an American Eagle model. Third of all, the endorsement they chose to put on the cover calls it ‘The OC meets Donna Tart.’
Donna Tart’s book The Secret History was about murderous college undergrads obsessed with the Classics, and reading it felt a bit like staring at the sun. (It hurt my head, if that wasn’t clear.) The OC was a TV show about rich people living in Orange County which – news flash – is in California. That’s on the opposite side of the United States to where Prep is set, folks. Turns out The Observer isn’t very observant. (Sorry – couldn’t resist.) Yes, I know what they meant, but it’s a lazy and almost irrelevant review. How this made it onto the front cover while comparisons to Salinger, a quote from Dave Eggers and an endorsement from The New York Times were relegated to the back is beyond me.
But try not to let the cover put you off. Have a read of Prep. It’s fantastic.