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Move Over, Holden

The book is structured around Lee Fiora's memories of high school in the late '80s and early '90s, recounted from a distance of about 10 years. She arrives at Ault on scholarship; her father owns a mattress store in South Bend, a secret Lee works hard to keep from other students, especially on the dreaded Parents Weekend.

In her desperation to fit in, in her complete inarticulateness and shyness, she makes a high school career of marginalization. She is not a glorified misfit; it's worse than that -- she's forgettable. "Prep" takes things semester by semester, and Sittenfeld, obsessed with structure, spent three years making charts of characters and plot points, which all move with that teenage sense of both urgency and leadenness. In one scene, freshman year, the school is abuzz with rumors that the headmaster is going to give them a traditional spring day off; it will be known only if he brings out a green blazer at study hall. When it happens, and everyone in Ault starts screaming with joy, Lee says: "I did not scream or hug anyone. In fact, as the noise gained momentum, I felt its opposite, a draining of excitement.

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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"Not because I was sad but because I was not happy, and yet, like my classmates, I'd experienced an emotional surge, I too felt the need for expression. This phenomenon -- being gripped by an overwhelming wave of feeling that was clearly not the feeling of the people around me -- had also happened at a pep rally: It made me uncomfortable, because I didn't want anyone to notice that I wasn't jumping up and down or cheering, and it also thrilled me, because it made the world seem full of possibilities that could make my heart pound. I think, looking back, that this was the single best thing about Ault, the sense of possibility. . . . In my whole life, Ault was the place with the greatest density of people to fall in love with."

Between the Lines

Between Random House playing up Sittenfeld's years at Groton, and Sittenfeld playing down the novel's connection to the school, it's hard to really know how much of "Prep" is autobiography. Sittenfeld is getting good at giving standard responses:

"If I were like Lee, which I really wasn't, if I were a really self-conscious, insecure person, I think the last thing I would do is write a 400-page book about my neuroses and my self-consciousness and draw attention to them sort of nationwide," she says. "I think it's an understandable question -- how much of it is me? -- and I don't really yearn to defend myself, or to have to say, 'Oh, I was like [Lee], but I was a lot cooler.' At some point I just kind of think, well, think whatever you want to think."

Still, every interviewer asks her to delineate between fact and fiction. When Sittenfeld was a senior at Groton in 1993, she wrote an opinion piece for The Washington Post about the subtle ways the school treated its young coeds differently from the boys; she'd helped start a feminist student group at Groton, and her article was seen as a sort of public betrayal. Similarly, Lee Fiora tells a visiting New York Times reporter about the social strata at Ault, about "banker boys" and racial discrimination, and when the article comes out, just before graduation, Lee is shunned by friends and faculty.

The only "Prep"-related publicity that has similarly upset Sittenfeld, so far, was being quoted in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram as saying: "Lee's a scholarship student and has some experiences, gets some resentments, from that aspect. I come from a privileged background. It's tacky to say, but from a dramatic level of rich, I guess."

Sittenfeld says she was misquoted about "the dramatic level of rich," and the paper ran a correction. The event seems like a paragraph out of her novel, a deft examination of the subtle issues of class and race, wrapped up in the rarefied world of prep school and the things one isn't supposed to say. It's bad to talk about money at Ault, and it's bad to talk about money in America, especially among those who have some.

Which brings us to Smith Point on a recent Thursday night, the basement restaurant/bar in Georgetown that has become a popular refuge for Washington's younger "haves," a crowded place of preppies. Here, cable-knit sweaters, upturned collars, pearls and old school ties are worn without irony or sense of fashion (although everything preppy is back in vogue). The Bush twins like it here. Young Republicans love it here. "Bitter Sweet Symphony" by the Verve blares a bit of '90s into the smoke-filled, bricky barroom, and preps in their twenties are buying multiple copies of "Prep" from a bookseller in the corner.

A Groton alumna, Christina Wilkie ('97), decided to co-host a book party for Sittenfeld here after the two women met at a recent Tom Wolfe reading at the Aspen Institute. ("You went to Groton? I went to Groton!" the women bantered, in front of the table where Wolfe was signing copies from "I Am Charlotte Simmons," his 688-page novel of college life, culture and sexual exploits at a rather Duke University-like private school -- a novel for which the esteemed author has taken a critical drubbing, almost the inverse of how "Prep" has been received for mining similar territory.)

"It's nice to know someone from Groton who got famous for not doing something bad, like getting arrested," Wilkie says. "I love the fact that Curtis doesn't judge the school, or judge the people. She judges that time in one's life, and it's like having your image turned in on yourself. There are parts of this book that are so universal, you just cringe. You just have to almost put it down and stop looking, it's that real."

"This may be the first book party Smith Point ever had," says a man who didn't want to give his name but says he also went to Groton in the late '90s. "I started the book and had a hard time putting it down. It's definitely Groton," he says, pointing to such school traditions that "Ault School" shares with Groton -- the "Low Notes" gossip column in the school paper; the schoolwide game of "Assassin"; the school holiday signaled with the headmaster's green blazer. "I'm still not sure if it makes us look good or look bad."

So Curtis Sittenfeld may be either the toast or bane of all preppiedom right now. "I don't have my pearls on right," she announces, while her sister leans in to help her adjust the clasp around her neck, and then laughs. "I'm sort of a fraud as a preppy."

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