When I was a wee childling (say c. 1989-93) I wanted a pony more than I wanted anything else in the world. I wanted a pony to the point of applying for that slot on Noel’s House Party where Mr. Edmonds fulfilled the wildest dreams of brave, disadvantaged and notable kids. (If you’re not a Brit of a certain age then the reference won’t mean a thing. Be very grateful.) Since Noel didn’t count being denied a Shetland by your otherwise indulgent parents as a bona fide disadvantage, I didn’t make the cut. I felt that to be a keen injustice.
The thing I wanted “second in the world” – aren’t desires so clean-cut and simple when you’re nine? - was to go to boarding school. In retrospect, I’m relieved my parent’s denied me that too.
Unabashedly, I blame Enid Blyton.
In Enid Blyton books, and particularly in my favourite Malory Towers series, girls were only fulfilled through the privilege of horse-back riding and midnight feasts in dormitories. [How to contain my excitement? That is *the* cover of my own 1992 HB omnibus reprint.] Darrell’s world was one in which parents played an incidental role (i.e. bankrolling the private education/stabling), and in which one’s life revolved around fairly innocuous peer politics. The absolute worst thing that could happen to you was being “sent to Coventry”, the best being regarded as a “good sport”. I suppose I was seduced by the ease with which Malory Towers girls went about their social interactions and achieved their academic goals. Of course there were tensions – practical jokes turned bad, someone cheating on a test, a bad tennis season – but they were never threatening and a happy order always prevailed. Perhaps I thought a pony and boarding school would dissolve all my personal anxieties and restructure my world in just the right way?
Prep’s protagonist and first person narrator, Lee Fiora, is apparently something of a kindred spirit to my pre-pubescent self. She yearns for the order, easy success and apparent independence of boarding school, with the added dimension of living the dream of effortless affluence. Going further than I ever did she sits and pours over school catalogues, imagining herself away from the “pale green linoleum and grimy lockers and stringy haired boys” of South Bend, Indiana and onto the pristine green lawns of east coast prep schools. She fantasises about:
“…teenagers in wool sweaters singing hymns in the chapel, gripping lacrosse sticks, intently regarding a math equation written across the chalkboard. …I imagined if I left South Bend, I would meet a melancholy, athletic boy who liked to read as much as I did and on overcast Sundays we would take walks together wearing wool sweaters.”
Her down-to-earth parents are honestly mystified as she pursues the application process and then shocked when she receives both an acceptance and a generous scholarship from Ault, a prestigious New England school with an annual price tag of $32,000. Trading away her family in the name of glossy promise she arrives there aged fourteen, a hopeful social climber filled with a genus of embarrassment familiar to most adolescents. She learns very quickly that she doesn’t really belong and, like the other scholarship kids or “provincials” or “ethnics”, finds herself outside “the sphere”, alienated by the indiscreet wealth of her fellow students. She obsessively reads and memorises their entries in the class handbook. There is Aspeth Montgomery “(Greenwich, Mass.)”, whose golden hair and social eloquence awaken the depths of Lee’s envy, and her male counterpart Cross Sugarman, who becomes the focus of Lee’s obsessive four-year crush. There is Darden Pittard “the cool black guy”, cool by virtue of not making a fuss of his ethnicity, and Alexander Hevard, an au couture Parisian with a taste for Class A drugs. Finally, there are her roommates Dede, a wanna-be-Aspeth whose Jewishness excludes her from the in-crowd, and Sin-Juan, a reclusive Korean student who later emerges as an old-school dyke. Lee continuously ponders her comparative mediocrity, endlessly critiquing her perceived inadequacies: her hair, her clothes, her demeanour and her attitude.
Back home in Indiana she had been “curious, noisy and opinionated”, part of a close and wonderfully idiosyncratic family but at Ault she is nothing at all. She doesn’t talk the talk or walk the walk. Despite having been the “genius” of her state school, her grade average looks decidedly second-rate next to her classmates. Her communications skills are well below par. And although money isn’t something Ault students talk about – a nonchalance of riches – everyone knows the poor kids from the rich ones:
“You can tell by people’s rooms – whether or not they have stereos, or if the girls have flowered bedspreads, or if they have silver picture frames. Just the quality of their stuff. And their clothes… And things like you can send your laundry to a service or you can do it yourself in the dorm machines. Or even some of the sport, how much the equipment costs…”
As she comes to understand her low ranking in the school’s complex pecking order, she develops the coping strategies that thread through the novel. First she attempts invisibility, absenting herself from conversations and friendships for fear she cannot behave correctly; she cultivates a form of extreme apathy. Then when no one chooses to rescues her from her self-imposed reticence, she buys into a cycle of debilitating humility forgoing parties and declining invitations for fear they’re proffered out of pity. When Cross Sugarman actually begins to show sexual interest in her in their senior year she repulses his advances to the point of no-return, self-effacing herself into social death.
In the healthy tradition of boarding school sagas Curtis Sittenfield dutifully plots Lee’s school career from start to finish (the 8 chapters each represent a semester) but gone are the innocent “larks” of my Blyton days. Rather, Ault is awash with alcohol, drugs and inordinate numbers of blow-jobs. Gone is the good-hearted striving for academic success, exploded by an environment in which seeking anything is considered rude and admission to an Ivy League is a given.
I’m almost self-conscious: Lee’s disabused desires for the boarding school experience are my own and I have more than a little fellow-feeling for her predicament.
There are a fair number of things to please in this, Sittenfield’s debut novel. She captures the claustrophobic intimacy of Ault perfectly with its arcane rituals, traditions and proper language. Given that she herself is nearly 30 her narratorial ventriloquism is quite excellent: Lee has the underdeveloped, self-obsessed and dreamy psychology of any number of mid-teenagers.
...Which sadly doesn’t alter the fact that I had to force my way through Prep’s endless, obvious school drama, cloying as treacle, or that I wanted to beat Lee Fiora to death with her own precalculus text book or that the trite ending made me writhe in throes of agony. Sittenfield just doesn’t make anything *interesting* out of her material and Lee’s characterisation is such that cliché is all we can ever expect from the portraits of friendship, First Love, betrayal and humiliation familiar from any number of fictions of high school experience. Despite being couched as reminiscence - at some point she intimates she is about my own age (i.e. 22) – Lee has gained no perspective on herself. Indeed, she appears to have learnt little, clinging pathetically to her old teenage misapprehensions. She remains gloriously self-indulgent and her final graduation epiphany – that there is a world outside of Ault – seems hardly to have impacted upon her at all. The very function of the narrative with it's posturing of teenage experience means that all I can credit is clever pastiche, well executed but ultimately limited and momentumless.
Additionally, an article I’ve read since finishing the novel - about Sittenfield’s own experiences of prep school both as a pupil and an investigative reporter - has almost convinced me that the book has an educational agenda. That the novel is part autobiographical, part-didactic makes most sense to me. Is it cruel to suggest that I can’t imagine an obviously talented, impeccably credentialed writer engaging with the subject material otherwise?
I don’t imagine Curtis Sittenfield should be overly hopeful for the Orange Prize: Prep looks highly incongruent on the long list and is a virtual no-chancer for the short list. Never fear though I doubt she'll run short of cash. Paramount has just bought the film rights and will probably make a passable teen flick out of it (probably minus the blow-jobs).
Witness my complete lack of surprise. ;-)