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.