Many years ago I worked alongside a young woman who, long before in another city, had had a relationship with a man who now worked in the building we were in. Whenever she spoke of him, her voice quavered and her eyes brimmed with tears. She was sure he was in love with her, but was dismayed that he showed no interest. She longed for him, but had not spoken to him for years. At certain times of day, when he might be due to leave work, she would go to the window and gaze out, hoping to catch a glimpse of him in the distance.
The cover of my (borrowed) copy of Prep
I thought of that colleague when I read “Prep” by Curtis Sittenfeld, published in 2005. The book follows a 14 year-old girl, Lee Fiora, who leaves her family home in Indiana to take up a scholarship at Ault, an elite boarding school on the US East Coast. Through her four years at the school, she obsesses about her relationships and develops a crush on a boy.
What a crush.
I found Lee maddening. Her passivity in all things, but particularly her relationship with the object of her desire, Cross Sugarman; her rejection of, and suspicion towards, any attempts at friendship or normal relationships with nearly everyone else in the book; and above all, her obsessive analysis of what everyone thinks of her and how her actions might or might not impact on that, is exhausting. Here, for example, is Lee wondering whether to visit Cross after he has injured his ankle:
I looked at myself myself in the mirror and sat down at my desk. How could I go to Cross’s dorm? Who knew who’d be there – presumably Devin would – or what if Cross was just hanging out in the common room, maybe he’d ordered pizza and was watching TV and the other guys sitting around wouldn’t understand why I was there, and there was a good chance that neither would Cross. So either he’d be not outright rude but aloof, or else he’d be polite, he’d try to make me feel comfortable, and his trying would be the worst part – the effort of it all. And what were the chances of his being a little woozy but clearly glad to see me, of scooting over and then, when I sat next to him on the couch, resting his arm around my shoulders, of neither of us needing to explain anything except that I’d ask how his ankle was?
At the same time, as with Orhan Pamuk’s powerful but imperfect novel “The Museum of Innocence”, which I reviewed on these pages in 2016 (“A man repeatedly lies to and harasses both his fiancée and his young lover, while pontificating about the “unpalatable anthropological truths” which plague relations between the sexes”) I felt that the author was well aware of the awfulness of the protagonist.
Just as I hoped that Pamuk was offering a critical commentary on men in general with his vile protagonist Kemal, I hoped Sittenfeld was doing the same for women (or teenage girls) by depicting Lee Fiora, crippled with self-hatred, bitterness and self-consciousness, not as typical but as an extreme, obsessive example.
A few quotations may help illustrate Sittenfeld’s depiction of Lee’s character:
Here Martha, Lee’s room-mate, and Lee describe themselves in a welcome flash of self-awareness: “But I’ve heard Martha is kind of a bitch,” Martha said. “Actually, Lee is the horrible one,” I said. “She’s totally insecure, and she complains all the time. And she’s so negative. I can’t stand negative people.”
Yet later Lee is furious – aged 17 – because her younger brother, not her, rides in the front of the car and her father makes fun of her rage: They laughed uproariously then, and I hated them. I hated them because they thought I was someone to mock and insult, because of the way they brought out the worst in me and it felt so familiar, it felt like the truth – it made my life at Ault seem like pretence. This was what I was, fundamentally: a petty, angry, impotent person. Why did I even care who sat in front?
Lee’s obsession with what people think of her surfaces in the school’s Valentine flowers exchange: Probably I had started thinking seriously about the Valentine’s flowers months before – even as a sophomore and junior, I’d wondered each year if there was any chance, if there was the remotest of possibilities, that Cross would send me one.
When the Valentines flowers come she is up at 3 a.m. to see what she has received. At first she finds none, until… And then I saw one with my name, the letters all in caps, in blue ink, and I felt a crazed glee, a balloon of exhilaration. I was ripping it open, and it was taking way too long – it must have taken less than a single second – and I was thrilled and hot and shaking with gratitude, thinking Finally, finally, finally, and these feelings spilled over into the point of recognising that the flower was not from Cross but from Aubrey – from Aubrey? Aubrey?
In another rare flash of intuition which, like the others, appears to have no impact on her subsequent behaviour, Lee recognises her own passivity about Cross, always waiting for him to make a move, never doing anything herself: I realise now: I ceded all the decisions to him. But that wasn’t how it felt! At the time, it seemed so clear that the decisions belonged to him. Rules existed; they were unnamed and intractable.
The way in which it is clear to the reader from the outset that Cross has little interest in Lee except for sex, while she for no discernible reason believes she is in a meaningful relationship with him, is for me a strong point of the book and one which made me think of The Museum of Innocence whose protagonist Kemal is beyond creepy but sees himself as a good person (see the review for my analysis). The description of how creepy Cross ceaselessly uses Lee is clear, and sickening (the pressure of his palm on the back of my head).
Cross Sugarman and Kemal would probably get on well.
Yet when Cross’s ghastliness is revealed to Lee, and even after she has, for about the only time in the book’s 400 pages shown some dignity (at last!) and told him what she thinks, she still hungers for him. For example, his room-mate, Devin, tells her: You’ve got to hand it to him. He gets the grades, he gets the positions, he gets the girls, but most of all, he gets the respect. I bet you hardly know the guy. This is an accurate summary of Cross and Lee. Yet a couple of pages later, when she sees Cross, her thoughts are: I was wearing a cotton skirt and a linen blouse, but all I wanted was for him to embrace me. Cross, characteristically, tries to blame Lee for her own unhappiness: You’re the one who set the terms. You can’t deny that. Kemal would admire Cross for his skills in manipulation.
Even after this, Lee crawls after Cross again: In my imagination he’d been reading in bed and he’d sat up when I entered and I’d crawled onto his lap and wrapped my legs and arms around him. And at first I’d be weeping and he’d stroke my hair, he’d murmur to me, but of course it would quickly turn sexual.
Indeed, I find Lee’s subservient sexual behaviour towards Cross, and his casual acceptance of this, about the hardest thing to read in the book. That, and her mean attitude even towards the girlfriends, such as Martha, who try to help her: “You’re my best friend, Lee. I can disagree with your choices and still care about you.” Well, aren’t you complex? I thought.
For: a forensic analysis of a teenager’s four years at a prep school, thought-provoking in its detail and apparent realism.
Against: I found the first two-thirds of the book dragged a bit, so only 7/10. The way Lee seems not to change, or to learn from her experiences, is frustrating but perhaps that is by design.
What do you think? Interestingly the first person who I discussed the book with after reading it said that she found Lee’s character uncomfortably realistic: “I recognised many of her behaviours”. Is Lee a realistic depiction? An extreme case? Or a fictional monster irrelevant to how most women feel about themselves and their relationships?
Finally, is anyone aware of any other comparisons between The Museum of Innocence and Prep?
P.P.S. Lee’s infatuation with Cross actually reminds me of Anna, the heroine of great movie “The Third Man“. In the film, Anna is deeply in love with Harry Lime, the abominable yet charismatic villain, to the extent that she continues to love him even when it is clear that he a) has betrayed her, and her love, and her life, to the Russians; and b) is dead. Yet this comes across as noble and tragic, not pathetic. Is this because Anna has dignity? Discuss.