By Curtis Sittenfeld
Random House. 406 pp. $21.95
In a memorable passage near the opening of Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh's narrator, Charles Ryder, reflects on how "easy" it is, "retrospectively, to endow one's youth with a false precocity or false innocence." The same double-edged temptation often derails first-time novelists, who end up enervating the protagonist-version of themselves with one or the other pretension. Not, however, Curtis Sittenfeld, whose gripping debut effort, Prep, gives us a more accurate picture of adolescence as an unlovely mix of utter cluelessness, extreme sensitivity and untempered drives.
Set at a (remarkably thinly) veiled Groton School, which Sittenfeld has for some reason here given a stumbling-block of a name -- Ault -- Prep tells the story of Lee Fiora, a middle-class Midwesterner who, prompted by an idle comment of her father's about rich people sending their sons to boarding school, packs herself off to one of the most famous. White, unathletic, trust fund-less, possessed of no special qualification that might serve to legitimize her existence in Ault's breathtakingly rarefied milieu, Lee manages, just barely, to make a single friend by the end of her freshman year. The next three years of misery in paradise are hardly any better, as our heroine sits out soccer games and school dances and long weekends in her dorm room, all the while tormented by a killer crush on one Cross Sugarman, the embodiment of Ault-typical privilege and ease.
Despite her day-to-day agony at Ault, the intensity of Lee's experience gives it from the outset its own throbbing, undeniable legitimacy. Effectively captured by Sittenfeld in a series of representative incidents -- parents' weekend, a school-wide game of "Assassin," a suicide attempt by a former roommate -- Lee's four years at the school she later recalls as "often unhappy . . . and yet my unhappiness was so alert and expectant; really, it was, in its energy, not that different from happiness." In a nice move that makes for pleasurable reading, Sittenfeld peoples Prep not only with Lee and her immediate circle of acquaintances but with the dozens of students, teachers and even dining-hall workers who make up boarding-school life and in some ways shape Lee's experience. We meet senior prefects Gates Medkowski and Henry Thorpe; Darden Pittard, "our class's cool black guy"; and Tullis Haskell, the guy who plays (naturally) James Taylor's "Fire and Rain" on guitar in the winter talent show. But the novel never slows, due to Sittenfeld's perfect pacing and almost reportorial knack for describing what it's like -- psychologically, logistically -- to be 15. Recounting a chance encounter with Cross Sugarman that leads to their seeing a film together, Lee extrapolates: "For the whole movie, I had that sense of heightened awareness that is like discomfort but is not discomfort exactly -- a tiring, enjoyable vigilance. I did not get a grasp on the movie's plot, or the names of any of the characters. Then it was over and the lights came on. . . . Maybe this was the place Cross and I would part ways, I thought. And maybe we wouldn't even say good-bye, now that he was with his friends again; maybe I was just supposed to know."
Occasionally, Sittenfeld's eye for detail is a bit too literal: Anyone with more than a passing familiarity with Groton may endure a squirmy moment or two when particulars such as the school's setting on "the Circle," the green jacket worn to announce a surprise holiday or the newspaper gossip column, "Low Notes," are transplanted. Not to mention -- full disclosure -- having a character who is a dead ringer for your husband turn up on page 72.
It seems likely that Lee Fiora will be compared to Holden Caulfield, and it is high time someone wrote the girl's boarding-school novel. But Lee is no disaffected Salingeresque anti-hero coolly outing phonies. Despite the novel's preppy setting (and cringe-worthy title -- an odd misstep), Sittenfeld's narrator, in her naked ambition, her unapologetic desire and moral ambivalence, has much more in common with, say, Neil Klugman of Goodbye, Columbus. This is a girl who lusts, cheats, trades up a loser friend for a better one and is embarrassed to be caught talking to a townie -- all, basically, to position herself for a chance to hook up with Cross Sugarman.
And this is the great risk that Sittenfeld takes: It's comparatively easy to write a novel about a young man trying to be socially acceptable enough to get into a girl's pants. The neurotically self-aware, unrequited (or briefly requited) male lover has been a stock character since the 12th century. To put a teenage girl in the same position is a much bigger gamble because, even now, it defies our expectations.
One of the most poignant moments in Prep comes when Sittenfeld's narrator articulates the other problem with being a girl who is not one of the rich beauties tying knots in their hair with pencils (or even an artsy, depressive type like Esther Greenwood of Plath's The Bell Jar) but a smart, self-conscious girl with ordinary looks and a sense of humor: It isn't, after all, simply that one wants to date the boys. As Lee explains, "The interest I felt in certain guys then confused me, because it wasn't romantic, but I wasn't sure what else it might be. But now I know: I wanted to take up people's time making jokes, to tease the dean in front of the entire school, to call him by a nickname. What I wanted was to be a cocky high-school boy, so [expletive] sure of my place in the world." It's this kind of insightful, unexpectedly candid observation that lends a dignity to Lee's time at Ault, enabling her in some way to transcend its social hierarchies -- not that she would ever want to.
Caitlin Macy is the author of the novel "The Fundamentals of Play" and is at work on a collection of short stories.