On Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep

The Magicians reminded me enough of Prep in that both deal with what are effectively high school societies, and yet both somehow manage to transcend those societies into something more that I reread Sittenfeld’s book. Although both might lag a bit in the middle, their ends make up for them. Prep is uneven, Lee’s laboriously analyzing of the financial and social intertwining of status at Ault can become tedious, but the final chapter is stunning in its emotional payoff in a way that isn’t predictable early on.

For example, at a needlessly awkward student teacher conference—actually, “needlessly awkward” could summarize most of Lee’s high school experience, though she only realizes it in the novel’s last pages—a teacher winks and Lee thinks:

What was I supposed to do back? Didn’t she realize that this wasn’t a movie about boarding school, where the student and the teacher could have a little burst of chumminess and then it would cut to another scene, like the student at soccer practice or the teacher riding her bike back to her cottage on the edge of campus? No, we were still in the same room, both of us having to breathe and speak in the aftermath of her wink.

Sometimes, Lee, a wink is just a wink and the optimal strategy involves shrugging off what you perceive as a social protocol violation. Social protocols are there to make interaction easier and more predictable, and when they fail, they should be discarded: perhaps one issue in being a teenager is learning how to build new social protocols and transcend old ones. She could have learned that here and applied it later. But it’s her failure to learn from the incident with her teacher that’s most notable: adolescent Lee, although she’s being viewed from the future, doesn’t imbibe what she should imbibe—not until much later. That somewhat sophisticated point of view works incredibly well for the novel, as it does in few others; Ian McEwan can pull off variations of the same technique in On Chesil Beach and Atonement, but few others can.*

In another Prep moment that’s chilling for adults chiefly because of memory, rather than present conditions, Lee is trying to evaluate where she stands with a guy. Her roommate observes, “You need to talk to Cross […] You’re allowed to ask him stuff, Lee. And, at this point, what is there to lose?” The question is being asked during their senior year, but even during Lee’s freshmen year, the answer would still have been the same: nothing. Nothing at all. But Lee doesn’t realize it, not until those final two pages that are more than worth all that comes before, much of which is a delight anyway.

* McEwan also feels a great moral obligation to write well, but that’s only based on a comparison to Sittenfeld’s Prep: I haven’t read any of her other work.

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