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Move Over, Holden

Curtis Sittenfeld Writes About Boarding School Life as if She's Been There

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 23, 2005; Page C01

Lee Fiora, the unlovably self-conscious narrator in Curtis Sittenfeld's first novel, "Prep," leaves South Bend, Ind., to attend Ault, a fictional prep school outside Boston, mostly because she was enchanted by the pictures in the brochure: gorgeous students in wool sweaters romping and lacrossing between classes in the fall foliage, buckling down intellectually in serious-looking campus buildings. To which we add yes, yes, yes: Popular culture loves a prep school story, the whole Holden Caulfield-ness of it, but also the Harry Potter-ness of it, the "Dead Poets Society" of it. (WASPs! Can't stand 'em, but can't get enough of them -- why is that?)

Sittenfeld, 29, had a similar longing as a girl growing up in Cincinnati. She's the second of four children. Her dad is an investment banker and her mom teaches art history at the private school that she and her siblings all attended. Recruiters from Groton, the real-life exclusive prep school outside Boston, came to town in 1988 and "nobody else was there -- like, my mother, my sister, me and maybe three other people," she says.

Curtis Sittenfeld completed "Prep," set at a fictional prep school, while teaching at the equally exclusive St. Albans School. "It was almost like cheating," she says of the experience. (Jahi Chikwendiu - The Washington Post)

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But something about the school's pitch appealed to her, and she asked her parents to let her apply. "I just became enthralled by the idea of boarding school, and it happened to coincide with this period where I was restless and ready for a new adventure, in a 13-year-old's kind of way. I was just curious about the world. I wanted a change." (And really, how could Groton not find room for a girl named Curtis? It's almost divinely preppy, and "Prep" is strewn with entitled-sounding first names -- Aspeth, Cross, Gates, Dede, Darden.)

Also there was something else: "I had watched 'The Facts of Life.' Remember 'The Facts of Life'?" Sittenfeld asks, conjuring up images of the '80s sitcom. To which we add yes, yes, yes: Forget all the critical accolades comparing "Prep" to "Catcher in the Rye" or to "A Separate Peace." (After all, in 406 pages of "Prep," not one person falls out of a tree, or is transformed, or redeemed, or finds the meaning of life in chapel or a mental hospital.)

To think "Prep" has its genesis in Tootie, Blair and Mrs. Garrett. "That's not a very -- I mean, it shouldn't be a compelling reason, but I saw 'The Facts of Life' and thought, oooh, a school where you sleep -- that must be fascinating," Sittenfeld says.

It's a balmy February afternoon and she is sitting in a patio chair at a cafe up Wisconsin Avenue from St. Albans School, where she has taught English part time for a couple years since serving as the private boys' school's "writer in residence" in 2002. Her hair is straight, black and blunt-cut just below the jaw, and her eyes are deep brown, and she laughs about almost everything. Her voice has that attractive, preppy, intelligent clench to it, partnered with a sing-songy, girlish inflection that 21st-century women do -- so every sentennnnce? Sort of goes uuuup?

By day she is Ms. Sittenfeld, ushering her ninth-graders right now through Charles Dickens's "Great Expectations," which she says is a marvelous distraction from the nearly universal praise and immediate success of "Prep." All the boys in her class really care about, when it comes to "Prep," is if it has foreshadowing, or if it's about a loss of innocence, and, ultimately, if Ms. Sittenfeld will make good on her promise to order pizza for the class if the book makes the New York Times bestseller list. (When she showed them galley proofs of the book last year, they very quickly sussed out the pages with sex scenes, and she very quickly collected the pages back from them and put them away.)

Turned down by 14 out of 15 publishers, "Prep" had a first printing of 15,000 copies in January. "One editor actually called my agent and turned it down, and then she called my agent back and said, 'I've never done this but I want to un-turn it down.' And then, she called again and turned it down," Sittenfeld says. Another editor suggested whacking the book in half, thinking it was too long (and frankly, a bit too dark and well written) to be successfully marketed as chick-lit.

The clamor for "Prep" has pushed a second printing up to nearly 100,000 copies, says Sittenfeld's editor at Random House, Lee Boudreaux. The first clue that the book would be a hit, Boudreaux says, was when four young publicists in the office each begged to be the one to promote it ("which hardly happens," she adds) and designed press materials to look like a yearbook. Then Boudreaux heard about a bevy of young editorial assistants at a glossy fashion magazine who'd all fought and slobbered over the advance copy, and who have now taken to referring to good-looking men they know as a "Cross Sugarman" -- the name of the main crush-object in "Prep."

The book entered the Times bestseller list last week at No. 11, and Paramount has optioned the film rights. Ms. Sittenfeld definitely owes her class pizza, and she is now worried about another promise she offhandedly made months ago, which one boy wrote in his notebook: Ms. Sittenfeld will take us to Hawaii if her book goes to No. 1. ("So, like, I'm hoping [to peak at] No. 2," she says.)

Home-Field Advantage

"Prep" is the kind of book you pick up and want to hate, if only because it was written by someone younger than 30, or because of the title, or because of the cute, stylishly embossed pink-and-green ribbon belt worn across its cover. You flip to the author photo and learn that after Groton (and some kind of Sylvia Plath-sounding writing award from Seventeen magazine), Curtis Sittenfeld went to Vassar, then transferred to Stanford, then got her MFA at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. You throw away a lot of books by people who did time in Iowa and take great author photos, because life is too short to read that many first novels. All of them are marketed as exciting new voices in fiction. And "Prep" seems to be about rich-girl teenage drama, and who needs that when we have "The O.C."?

But from the first few pages, it is clear that "Prep" is something else entirely; it is an almost clinically accurate and absorbing glimpse into the daily life of an exclusive, privileged place. People who have read "Prep" go on enthusiastically about the smells, feelings, colors and emotional range that Sittenfeld appears to have recollected from her Groton days -- and built on once she got to St. Albans:

"It was almost like cheating," she says of living at St. Albans. "I'd been writing this book about this kind of place and the kinds of people you might find there, and then there I was, sort of back in it, overhearing pieces of dialogue or something. . . . If I got to a place where I needed to describe some food in the dining hall, well, I'd just go downstairs to the dining hall and have dinner."

Beyond the setting of "Prep," the novel is more deeply about the universal experience of being a teenager, and about learning to let go of the weirdness, the damage of having been one -- perhaps more so than any novel in decades. Even 50-year-olds are raving about it; you're 200 pages in before you stop to look up. Reviewers have complained that they get all the way through "Prep" only to find nothing much really happens to Lee Fiora in a profound sense; the book has been criticized for being anticlimactic. But that fact has also been praised as "Prep's" asset, sparing readers the narcissistic trauma of, say, a Bret Easton Ellis novel. ("Prep" has PG-13 sex, only one suicide attempt, and virtually no drug or alcohol use -- where is this mythical Ault, some parents will want to know.) Eventually Lee just grows up and lets go. "What kind of a person is named 'Cross Sugarman'?" a grad school friend asks Lee, miles and years away from Ault, with devastating, real-world clarity.

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