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by Curtis Sittenfeld
Few of us yearn to relive our high school experiences—it's a time of life when social pressures are at their most Darwinian and insecurities are at their peak. Yet fictional accounts of those years seem to hold a perpetual fascination—think A Separate Peace or A Catcher in the Rye or, to take a more recent and less high-brow example, last year's film Mean Girls. The latest work in this genre is Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep, which was published this winter by Random House and which has been on the New York Times bestseller list for the past nine weeks.
Sittenfeld's novel tells the tale of Lee Fiora, who leaves South Bend, Indiana, to spend four years at Ault, an exclusive boarding school in Massachusetts. Coming from the Midwest, from a family with little money, Lee enters a world where money is something everyone has but no one talks about. At one point Lee comments about one of her classmates, "If she was rich, then she belonged at Ault. Being rich, in the end, counted for the most—for more, even, than being pretty." Lee—in her own mind neither rich enough nor pretty enough—feels profoundly awkward at Ault. She chooses to fade into the background and from there to observe the intricate world of boarding school life. From this perspective, Lee examines Ault as an anthropologist would—dissecting every social interaction and custom, looking for some sort of larger meaning. Many of her descriptions—including the one below, about the annual furor surrounding the delivery of Valentine's Day flowers—cast an amusing light on both the strange preoccupations of adolescence and on Lee herself.
The idea was that you'd have flowers awaiting you in the morning; the reality was that in most dorms, the flowers were pawed through by twelve-fifteen. Usually, they were pawed through by someone like Dede, a person unsure how many flowers she'd get, and unable to conceal this anxiety. A person like Aspeth, on the other hand, could stroll into the common room just before chapel the next morning to pick up her bounty, and it would be impossible to say whether she'd waited so long because she wanted everyone to see how many she'd received or because it really wasn't that big a deal to her. My freshman year, Aspeth had received—I feared these figures would remain with me long after I'd forgotten the date of the Battle of Waterloo or the boiling point of mercury—six pink carnations, eleven white carnations, and sixteen red roses, twelve of which were from a sophomore ... who had never before spoken to Aspeth.
But as skilled as Lee is at analyzing that world, she finds it difficult to navigate—not so much the academic side of it, although things do not come as effortlessly to her in that regard as they seem to for so many of her classmates, but more the everyday work of figuring out how to act and where she fits in. She overthinks everything, from where to sit in the dining hall, to what to say to the boy on whom she has a desperate crush, to whether she should say hello to someone she passes in a quiet hallway.
Walking through the empty schoolhouse and back to my dorm, I thought how exhausting Ault was, all the chatter and expressions you had to make: Attentive! Inquisitive! I let my face sag, but then I saw someone ten yards in front of me, emerging from the courtyard. ... I glanced at his eyes and saw that he wasn't looking at me, and then I looked down and then as we came closer to each other, I slid my backpack off one shoulder so it was in front of me ... and pretended to rummage in it. In this way ... I avoided saying hello.
Lee is adolescent angst taken to the extreme, but most people will recognize at least a bit of themselves in her.
One question that has come up again and again in all of the coverage that Prep has received is how much of Curtis Sittenfeld is reflected in the character of Lee. It's a natural thing to ask, given that as a teenager Sittenfeld came from the Midwest to spend four years at Groton, a small, prestigious boarding school in Massachusetts, and that many of the particulars of Ault are true of Groton as well—the waspy, wealthy students, the bucolic setting and Gothic architecture, the expectation that its graduates will attend Ivy League schools. Perhaps the most important trait that Sittenfeld shares with Lee—and the one that infuses Prep—is her penchant for keen observation, a skill that enables her to bring the painful dramas of high school experience to life in a way that not only rings true but—this time around—is bitingly funny.
Sittenfeld, who interned at The Atlantic while in college, graduated from Stanford University and received an M.F.A. at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She is now teaching English part time at the St. Albans School in Washington, D.C., and working on her second novel.
We spoke by phone on March 28.
What has this experience been like for you? Did you expect Prep to take off in the way it has? It's really become a phenomenon of sorts.
I would say the short answer is no, I didn't expect this. But at the same time, when I would talk to my editor and publicists at Random House in the months before publication, they were always really excited and enthusiastic. So I always thought that if it wasn't a best seller they might be disappointed. I didn't necessarily think it would be, but I thought they kind of expected it. But then, as the book started to sell well and did become a best seller, they would say things to me like, "Isn't this great?" "Can you believe it?" "I can't believe it." And I thought, You can't believe it!? But didn't you assume this would happen, and didn't you make it happen?
You used the word "phenomenon," and I think that if I knew someone who had written a book and then things had unfolded this way, I would probably think, Oh, you must be so excited all the time! You must be so swept up in everything. I do feel really lucky, but my life is not that different. One big difference is obviously that in the past I've conducted these interviews and now I'm giving one. But in a weird way, it kind of takes up the same time. And because I've worked as a freelancer I've had the experience of going to a newsstand and buying a paper or magazine and having my name in it. This is sort of a different version of something that I'm familiar with. Probably a year from now I'll look back and think, Oh, that was exciting. But right now it's not as if I'm walking around winking at myself in mirrors.
"Stories to Break Our Hearts" (July 15, 2004)
Bret Anthony Johnston talks about the fiction of grief and loss, skateboarding, and choosing a hometown setting for his first collection of stories.
"The Writing Obsession" (November 12, 2003)
Tobias Wolff on his new novel, Old School, an examination of literary ambition gone awry.
"Caught Between Places" (April 2, 2003)
A conversation with John Murray, a doctor-turned-writer whose characters are often searching to reconcile their new lives with the ones they've left behind.
"Angles of Prose" (April 11, 2002)
Antonya Nelson, the author of Female Trouble, talks about her unsentimental take on the untidy worlds her characters inhabit.
In coming up with these questions, I went back and looked at some of your interviews just to see the types of things that you'd asked. And I found a quote which I thought was funny given the coverage that you've gotten. In your interview with Tobias Wolff you said, "Among writers, it's a faux pas to ask if a work of fiction is true, and it's also the first question that non-writers ask. Does the question bother you?" Could I ask you the same thing you asked Wolff?