I read Prep, by Curtis Sittenfeld, over the holidays. This book was chosen by the New York Times as one of the ten best books of 2005, alongside Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, Ian McEwan’s Saturday, and Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore. While I found the book enjoyable, my impression is that this novel is out of its league when it comes to the NYT list. Ultimately, it’s a satisfying beach or holiday read, but it’s intellectually slim. That isn’t to say that a novel must contain some sort of high ideas to be a good book–which Prep certainly is. However, in my opinion, one of the litmus tests for a great book is that it make me think, that it challenge me in some way.
Perhaps Prep received the attention it did in part because it might look, at first glance, like the female version of the boarding school genre, which has generally been devoted to boys’ schools. But while Prep is twice as long as Richard Yates’s gorgeous Good School or Tobias Wolff’s stirringly meditativeOld School, it seems thin in comparison.
In an interview printed in the back of my copy of Prep, Sittenfeld says that she’s not as interested in a beautiful sentence as in a good story. While I agree that a good story is essential to a great book, a well-tuned plot isn’t enough. The sentences, too, must rise above the mundane, must have a grace to them that sets them apart from the ordinary. This is not to say they should be “purple” or overwritten–just that they should have a sound and rhythm that arrests the ear, makes the reader know she is in the presence of a writer who has a gift for language. That sense of of sound is missing here: “The two senior prefects led roll call, standing at a desk on a platform and calling on the people who’d signed up ahead of time to make announcements.” There isn’t anything technically wrong with this sentence, and if it appeared on page four of the book, or even page two, I might not have noticed it at all. Certainly, almost any writer can be taken to task for less-than-perfect sentences. But this is the third sentence in the novel. At this early stage in the book, the writing should simply be better.
Sittenfeld, to her credit, is very good with similes, and I often found myself laughing at some witty comparison. She also does an excellent job relating the day-to-day dramas of teenage life within the school. But characters come up and annoyingly go missing–a friend, a potential date, a devoted teacher. Although the story is told from a temporal distance, after our narrator Lee Fiora has grown up and moved on, there is very little reflection on her own cruelties. For example, at the beginning of the novel, she turns a classmate in for stealing, and the classmate is kicked out of the school. Later, she dumps a girl named Conchita who up until that point has been her best friend at the school. After these incidents, we hear hardly anything at all about these characters. Conchita is still on campus, but it is as if she has entirely disappeared, and we’re left wondering when they will meet up again. This seems like a misstep that Sittenfeld might take note of if she were reviewing her own book, given that one of her criticisms of Melissa Bank’s The Wonder Spot, in her much-talked-about send-up of chick-lit, is the ” abandonment of characters.”
All that said, I gave this book to my sister as she was heading out for a week in a cabin in Michigan! It is, in the end, a highly entertaining book, and I happily breezed right through it. Perhaps the reason I expected more out of it was that the author’s passionate attack on chick-lit gave the impression that her own taste runs to higher forms of art. A higher form of art, Prep is not. “Undeniably, there were times when I laughed or winced in recognition as I read; I understood exactly what Sophie meant, and that’s when I liked the book best,” writes Sittenfeld of The Wonder Spot. Ah, I felt just the same way with Prep! “But this, ultimately, is the reason I know The Wonder Spot is chick lit,” Sittenfeld writes: “because its appeal relies so much on how closely readers relate to its protagonist.” Ah, doth the lady protest too much?
Now, before you dash off an email saying that The Wonder Spot and Prep are apples and oranges, please note that I haven’t read The Wonder Spot, so I am not comparing the two books; rather, I am comparing Sittenfeld’s experience of The Wonder Spot with my experience of Prep. One of these days, maybe I’ll get around to reading some of that so-called chick-lit, and I’ll have a different pulpit to preach from.