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It's a real Marmite book - you'll either love it or hate it.
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 :-)