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  • Prep
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on 16 September 2015
I'm a big believer that certain books suit certain circumstances. For me Prep came alone just at the right time; the kids were back at school, the weather was chilly and damp and the first flush of summer was wearing off being replaced by the wistful feel of Autumn and memories of my own school years. The poignancy and nostalgic feel of Sittendfeld's novel suited my mood perfectly.

Told in a Wonder Years/How I Met Your Mother style, our narrator and protagonist, Lee Fiore, is looking back at her time at the prestigious Ault Prep School. Lee comes from a normal family, two brothers, mattress store manager father, bookkeeper mother. She is bright, confident and sure of her place in the world but at 13 she wants, well more. Seduced by the bright brochures of boarding schools and full of daydreams of the lifestyle it depicts Lee spends her year before High School filling in scholarship applications and petitioning her parents to let her attend one if she gets in. And she does get in to Ault. But the minute everything is arranged she begins to have doubts.

Once at Ault Lee loses all sense of herself. Overawed by the money and lifestyle of her fellow students and no longer the brightest and the best, the usual teenage angst and struggle of fitting in is doubled by Lee's newly found lack of self esteem. Practically crippled by social anxiety her first year at Ault, Prep documents Lee's emotional struggles as she progresses through the school.

Because I loved the book so much and wanted to do it justice in a review, I had a look at some of the others. Some people complained of not relating to the main character. This is a problem. The beauty of this novel is that its a character portrait of self by an analytical, and educated adult woman. It is designed to tug on the memories of social isolation and discovery of self during adolescence. Lee is not a cheerleader, she's no good at sports, she never makes student council or develops a group of wonderful quirky friends (she has one good friend and some acquaintances). She nearly flunks math, she doesn't have a swoon worthy romance and there is no pivotal moment where she rises above it all to become the star of the school despite her "Lower Middle Class" roots. She is perfectly ordinary in every way and the experiences that she goes through are every day ones. In this way Prep flaunts the current trends and plot lines of the teenage protagonist novel. Its not offering hope that the teenage years are going to improve, its letting you know that your adult ones will. Because of this, if you don't relate to Lee as a person, you aren't going to like this book. You don't have to like her but in order for you to truly experience the evoked emotions of her experience there has to be a seed of yourself that thinks "I know you".

People complained there was no plot. Well there is no overlying plot. The book is told chronologically in sections detailing different periods of her time at school that were particularly emotionally charged and there is a plot to each section but no there's no linking plot line, and as I said above it doesn't stick to the normal conventions of a coming of age novel. So if you want a action driven plot or a defining moment you won't like it.

People complained that there was no character development. This is both true and not true. The book is narrated by the adult Lee in one moment in time. Therefore the tone, language and maturity level of the narration as a whole does not develop. The narrator is fixed at one period in time so is in stasis. However, through the stories told in a chronological order there is development of the teenage Lee and her peers.

It's a real Marmite book - you'll either love it or hate it. I absolutely loved this book and would urge you to give it a go but if you find yourself not getting into it after the first section my advice would be to give it up. Life's too short and this book is too long :-)
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on 9 December 2013
Based on the book reviews I expected a little more.

there was some things about the content that widely disturbed me (and I can assess that, having attended such a school and later an elite university). sometimes its soo cliché and sometimes it barely touches the truth. In a nation were varsity sports are EVERYTHING in high school and even the publics are heavily competing the author wants us to believe some random teacher can just coach any sport and Lee who is not very sporty has the time and the skills to be a member of multiple teams? at an elite boarding school? every school team that takes sports seriously will train at least 4 times a week. I row. 6 times a week. and I drink (the book claims rowers don't) Lee was apparently so good at her JH, that she got a scholarship for almost the entire tuition. and than her grades go down the drain? come on! in the US? schools easy as piss, and at boarding school you have lot more time to do your work and less distractions. and what really disturbed me was that the author seems to think that being poor equals not having manners. although its not at all hard to imagine that even the upper class kids at Ault don't know how to use fork and knife properly. but the way lee's father behaves is pretty unbearable, but Lee has not once the guts to tell him why he should stop behaving like this. she is then described as being snobbish.

as for the way its written: the author just jumps right in: you have know clue whether she was this awkward before etc.. same as the relationship JUST HAPPENS, how unrealistic is that?!?! the book lacks overall in structure the first 2 thirds feel much more like short stories, rather than a novel.

The author got some things right: like there is no racism at boarding schools, because people are not divided by race but by wealth. but even this part was to dull, to harmless. it doesn't really feels like the kids are that SUUPER rich.. it much rather seems Lee's family is that super poor. or why wouldn't you order soda at a restaurant, its cheap as piss and they give you free refill anyway.
if you want to see some real boarding school action I suggest you check out the Facebook page: What Happens at Private School Goes On Snapchat
in many ways more accurate and more entertaining than this book!
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on 16 April 2015
The fact that I've given this book five stars is already quite telling, because I almost never do it. In this case, however, I was willing to make an exception because I ADORED this book.

The plot is essentially the story of a girl growing up and learning about her place in the world- or, in this case, the world of Ault academy, the prodigious boarding school that provides much of the book's setting. Although I have never been to boarding school myself, Lee Fiora's narrative takes you straight into the world of Ault. I think Curtis Sittenfeld absolutely nails Lee's character- we watch her grow up from being an insecure, shy fourteen-year-old into a detached teenager, who constantly questions her position in Ault, a world where she never feels she quite fits in. Lee is a brilliant character because she feels so real- you could have picked up the diary of an actual person, in story format. There were so many little quotes from the book where I really understood and sympathised with Lee. Even with her more questionable actions and choices, there was always a good reason for it in her mind, and if was easy to feel for her even if you disagreed with her on occasion. Her growth as a character is very compelling and realistic.

Another thing I adored about Prep was the way the world of Ault academy is structured, the way that, the more Lee begins to connect properly with her preppy peers and surroundings, the more disconnected and embarrassed she feels from her Midwestern parents, particularly her father. The characters that populate Lee's world are well-written, so I was just as interested in finding as much about them as Lee is, pouring endlessly over yearbooks to recognise both her own classmates and students of the past. There were so many little moments in the book that stood out to me, such as Lee's first meeting with her long-standing crush, Cross Sugarman, the school-wide game of 'Assassin' or the politics over who gets nominated as prefect. The characters also stood out on their own well without feeling merely like props- Lee's rival/sort-of friend, Dede Schwartz, alpha bitch Aspeth Montgomery, her best friend Martha Porter, Sin-Jun, so many of them were real and relatable. There were a few moments where I thought, "Okay, where is this going?" but not out of impatience, more curious as to how early events of the novel shape and change Lee's experience at Ault.

Overall, I loved reading this book and would recommend it to anyone who likes an immersive, vibrant read with very realistic characters and intriguing storytelling.
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VINE VOICEon 1 January 2006
"I was terrified of unwittingly leaving behind a piece of scrap paper on which were written all my private desires and humiliations. The fact that no such scrap of paper existed ... never decreased my fear."
Lee Fiora has written a coming of age novel unlike no other. On the one hand she is insecure and unsure of most everything, and on the other hand she shows a maturity of thought on what she really wants to be:
"The interest I felt in certain guys then confused me, because it wasn't romantic, but I wasn't sure what else it might be. But now I know: I wanted to take up people's time making jokes, to tease the dean in front of the entire school, to call him by a nickname. What I wanted was to be a cocky high-school boy, so damned sure of my place in the world."
Curtis Sittenfeld, the author, grew up in Cincinnati, and went to Groton and then on to Vassar and Stanford. Lee Fiora grew up in South Bend, and then on to Ault Prep School and the U of Michigan. Curtis Sottenfeld would have us believe that this is not an autobiography, but many people who went to Groton can identify with much of the book. I would suggest that many people who were ever adolescents can identify with much of the book. This is a true coming of age novel, and one that reflects accurately the angst of the teenager. Most of us can sympathize with Lee Fiora, we have been there, we have suffered the same problems and issues, and Curtis Sittenfeld has depicted these events as startlingly and evenly as we remember them.
"Prep" is not an "us against "you" novel as suggested elsewhere. It is more of a compelling read about our lives and times. The "haves and have nots" are certainly registered. Cross, Aspeth, DeDe are all names that gleam money and power. "The Bankers Boys" are a reflection of the rich young men whose fathers are found on Wall Street. "Prep" also brings in the stereotypical race and sexual issues, but they are told with insight and familiar settings. We understand what these people are going through, and we can identify with the feelings and behaviors.
Lee Fiora is a young girl of the late 80's and early 90's. Just before the dawn of email and computer land. The students talk to each other and on the phone and communication with their parents is as I remember. The love/hate relationship with the family we have left behind and the values taught by our parents.
A memorable read. Many of us can identify with the behavior and feelings of Lee Fiora. In trying to find your place in the world, we all are wrestling with our inner beings. Well done Curtis Sittenfeld. My adolescence remembered, one of the best times of my life and one of my worst. Highly recommended. prisrob 01-01-06
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on 8 July 2013
I first read this book a few years ago during my last few weeks at Oxford University and although this is set at posh American school rather than a posh English University, I don't think I've ever identified quite so much with a book or with its main character. I re-read the book a few weeks ago and wondered how it would stand-up now I'm no longer living a life that is so reminiscent of the book. It didn't quite grab my emotions and not let go in the way it had the first time, but it is the sort of book that rewards a second reading and on the whole seemed just as brilliant.

Prep follows Lee, a scholarship girl, through five years at an elite school. She is painfully self-aware and never quite fits in. The author could have gone down the stereotypical, easy route and had this be the fault of stuck-up cruel rich students, but the author students are generally pleasant or at worst oblivious. Most of Lee's problems are self-inflicted.

The book has a wonderful level of detail and creates a fully imagined world. Where I to find myself at the fictional Ault school, I think feel fully at home and know exactly how to behave.

I love is the structure, in two ways. Firstly, it is all being narrated by an older Lee (it's never quite clear how old or what exactly she's up to - we hear about the fates of other characters, but never her). It's clear that her time at Ault was a pivotal period for her, but while never shying away from her teenage emotions, obsessions and neuroses, she's able to look at them with a degree of attachment and hindsight. She's also able to make interesting asides about what happened to a person or tradition or friendship in later years.

Secondly, the story isn't told using a normal chronological style that breezes through her five years at the school. Rather, it's told as a series of anecdotes that almost function as standalone short stories. For example, one section focusses on her participation in a school competition, another on a disastrous parents' weekend. Each of these little stories is very revealing about the school and about Lee. Each of them are also just great stories that make you feel real emotion and in places make you laugh. At the same time, they also make interesting points about class, gender and race, without leaving you feeling that you've become trapped inside a sociology essay.

Arguably, one of the book's greatest strengths is also it's greatest weaknesses - the character of Lee. Lee is a very observant and thoughtful person and as a result her narration is fascinating. Some paragraphs are beautiful and strangely philosophic. At the same time, there's an interesting degree of, not exactly unreliable narration, but rather Lee not necessarily seeing things the same way most people would and over-analysing everything. This was very well done, but at times I itched to get a brief point of view from another character and see Ault, and indeed Lee, through their eyes.

On the whole, I could identify with Lee and found her a very sympathetic character that I could really root for. At times though, she seemed to go beyond ordinary shyness and social awkwardness to a degree of isolation and self-defeating behaviour that made her frustrating as a heroine and made me worry that she had some kind of personality disorder or was deeply depressed.

This is one of my all-time favourites and I'd wholeheartedly recommend. It's an especially great read for anyone who was a shy teenager, who has ever found themselves in a "fish out of water" scenario or who has experience of elite institutions and their weird traditions. Even if you don't fall into any of those categories though, I think you'd still enjoy the thoughtful prose, the emotional plot and the intriguing way of telling the story. I love all of this author's work, but this is still the best.
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on 23 July 2013
Lee Fiora wins a scholarship to an elite boarding school. At 14 years of age she leaves Indiana and goes to Massachusetts - it is some time, unspecified, in the 1980s. The four years she spends there are narrated by her older, wiser self. She learns about herself, about friendship and emotion, and love. The other characters are really staple for this kind of a story, as are the teachers. There are wise teachers, young teachers, old teachers; there are sporty boys, pretty girls, eccentrics. The book closes with a short summary of what became of them - from this world they all do ok, not surprisingly. Lee, though, was less than happy and we find that the school - called Ault - did not "prep" her for Adult life.
Curtis Sittenfeld writes well. She captures the emotional intensity occasioned in younger people by trivial misunderstandings, as well as the confusion and pain of a broken heart. Lee is naturally introspective and self-conscious, elsewise there would not have been the book, but everything is from her point of view. While her views change as she moves from freshman to senior, the focus is still somewhat narrow. Also one can't help but find her gullible - even when she is 18.
The setting is peculiarly American. Boarding schools do exist in England but generally they are not academic hothouses, while many of the "best" schools are part of the state system. I don't know how accurate the picture of Ault is, but the pupils seemed to behave and be treated as though they were more mature, especially in matters of sex. It seemed closer to a university. I felt some of the pupils were rather worldly-wise for their years and again I don't know if this is realistic.
I don't think this is to be read as a critique of American education. Ault is really just the setting for a coming-of-age novel, of bright, young and generally very rich adolescents. I could not help but compare this with the gritty Megan Abbott Dare Me set in an ordinary high school and more convincing.
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VINE VOICETOP 500 REVIEWERon 6 October 2016
Lee Fiora comes from a small town but obtains a scholarship to an exclusive private school - confusingly for British readers called a prep school when she is actually a teenager. Lee has shone in her home environment but she is out of place at Ault in every way and she finds as she progresses through school that she is an outsider at school and increasingly at home as well. The story is told from the point of view of Lee as an adult so she is distanced from the experience by time as well and she can insert some analysis about what were the important events and why they happened.

Lee is an amazing creation. You really understand what it feels like to be an outsider and to have different experiences and aspirations than your peers. You understand that she lives in fear of being rejected and why she herself rejects others who are in a similar situation - you understand but at times it is difficult to excuse Lee's cowardice. It brings to mind all those times that you have gone along with the crowd when you knew it was wrong. That is the beauty of the writing in this book in that you can identify with Lee even while you have absolutely nothing in common with her circumstances.

The book is actually rather depressing and at times a scathing indictment of privilege and a sense of entitlement. It is surprisingly gripping although it is quite a long book but this is definitely an adult's book - it is not a school story as read by teenagers. The school is a reflection of our society - those with money and breeding are at the top and there is no way in for the rest of us. This is a book that shows that when we aspire to rise there is no place anywhere for us.
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on 8 February 2010
Having thoroughly enjoyed "An American Wife", I went in search of other books by Sittenfeld. "Prep" looked promising - especially as the protagonist seemed to be the the foreunner for Alice Blackwell (from "An American Wife".) I have seldom been so disappointed in a book. Lee Fiora is devoid of interest, and the satellite characters are two-dimensional. Reading "Prep" was like wallowing in a self-obsessed, self-pitying tweenie's diary. This first few pages may be touching, but when the same scenes are played out relentlessly, with minor variations, over 400 pages, the reader's reaction swiftly turns to irritation. The book offers no dramatic tension, neither in plot nor character development. Lee simply does not develop at all over the four years of the story's narrative. Her character is so colourless that the one female friendship she forms, and the one sexual relationship, are entirely unconvincing. What did either of them see in her? If the reader, who has come to know her so well, cannot find her remotely interesting (or even nice), how on earth did she manage to attract these two people? Also unconvincing were the references to Lee's previous existence in South Bend, where she was one of the brightest and the best, thus winning the scholarhip to preppy Ault. I persevered with the book in the hope that these qualities might re-emerge after she found her feet and that things might get interesting. But it was not to be. Sittenfeld's heavy handed message seems to be that transplanting yourself from a small to a large pond is inadvisable for some little fish. The trouble is that one cannot begin to imagine Lee as a big fish in the South Bend pond - her transformation at Ault is so utterly complete. Yet again, the word that springs to mind is "unconvincing".
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on 17 September 2012
On page 366 of my copy of Prep our protagonist sums herself up beautifully:

"Actually, Lee is the horrible one," I said. "She's totally insecure, and she complains all the time. And she's negative."

Prep is a very well written book that resolves around Lee's four years at Ault - but nothing happens. The `highly public self-destructive behaviour' referred to in the blurb doesn't actually occur until you've reached page 430something and even then it's dealt with the same way Lee deals with every event, pages and pages of self-pity with no acknowledgement of her own faults.

Sometimes you read books for the story, sometimes for the characters - with Prep I felt like I had neither. Lee starts the book the same way she finishes, just four years older. For me there wasn't any growth in her character. I know you don't have to like the protagonist to like the book, actually sometimes the best characters are the ones you can't stand, but Lee didn't have enough personality to be interesting.

Curtis Sittenfeld writes beautifully but for me Prep was a very slow build up to an event that in the end hardly creates a wave in Lee's life.
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on 2 August 2010
I really enjoyed Prep. So much so that I was up until 3am last night finishing it (I couldn't sleep and figured I'd read a few pages... a couple of hours later I'd read over 100 pages, it was finished and it was 3am) as it was hard to put down. Really I should probably say that I loved this book

This was the perfect book for someone like me who grew up reading school stories and wishing she could have gone to boarding school. Nicely nostalgic and very well written. I could relate a lot to Lee and the other characters, I saw bits of myself as a teenager in them and it bought back memories both good and bad of my school days and teenage years. I wondered about Lee and why she was the way she was but didn't come to any real conclusions, nor does the book give any real answers. I think that is a great way for the book to end as it leaves the reader to make up their own mind and keeps you guessing after you turn the last page.

One of the things I particularly liked about this book is the fact that it mostly sticks to her school days and other than I think two occasions it doesn't deal with her return home for holidays and visits. That does mean that some time gets skipped but that doesn't jar at all and it works really well. I think if more of Lee's time with her family was included the book would lose focus and not work so well. I also liked the way it was written in retrospective - a now adult Lee looking back at her experiences and describing them with hindsight, which brings more depth than if they were being described at the moment they occurred. It also allows the author to bring in some of Lee's post Ault experiences to the descriptions and they added to the story as well. Those glimpses into the future Lee were intriguing and made the character more real.

I've not read anything by Curtis Sittenfeld before; I'll be looking out for more of her books now. And I'd particularly like to see a sequel to Prep.
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