Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld—The Modern "Catcher" for Young Women
Lee Fiora is a smart, observant, endlessly insecure (though she doesn't know it) fourteen year old girl who is seeking something "different" when she decides to attend an elite boarding school, Ault, in Massachusetts. Hundreds of miles away from her comfortable home in South Bend, Indiana, Lee finds that Ault isn't exactly what its glossy brochures and lush green lawns make it out to be. Lee's experiences—discovering a world unlike her own, surviving complicated relationships with girls her age, becoming infatuated with a boy she never feels good enough for, losing her status as "daddy's little girl"—ultimately communicate the universal pain and excitement that encapsulates being an adolescent and becoming a young adult.
I read this novel for the first time when I was 18 years old. It was the summer before my first year of college and I could not have been more thrilled to be done with high school and on to "bigger" things. I was leaving the small town I had spent my whole life in for a small liberal arts university hundreds of miles away. At the time, I didn't necessarily see the similarities in my own situation and Lee's situation, but the story did speak to me in many ways. I saw aspects of myself in Lee, as I think any young girl will.
What makes this story so essential within the young adult genre is Sittenfeld's beautiful depiction of character. Lee captures so many of the universal aspects of being a young girl, that she is approachable for any individual. Lee is flawed—she's foolish and curious, timid and motivated—she's lost. Lee confronts issues of class and money within her new world at Ault. She explores the facets of friendships that so many girls can relate to. Her slow infatuation turned less-than-relationship with a beautiful boy at the school communicates something universal about what it is to be young and have a longing to belong. There is something about Lee's duality in personality, wants, and actions that makes her endlessly familiar. She feels like a constant outsider in the school because she is on scholarship and her hair is not blonde—what she doesn't know is she puts herself on the outside. She is simultaneously drawn to and repelled by other outsiders in the school. Never accepting her place within the system—Lee's story at Ault really boils down to finding her own identity outside of everyone else's.
I recently picked up this novel again as a 20-something college grad working in the "real world". The novel is just as engrossing as a supposedly grown up, put together adult as it is for a clueless and hopeful 18 year old on summer vacation. Just as Catcher in the Rye was able to depict the coming of age of a young boy in a world that he forever felt out of place in, Prep captures this growth and experience in a delicate and fleeting way. Lee and Holden are staples of American literature. Holding an important place in the world of literary genre and theme, the coming of age story will forever be the signpost of young adult fiction—as it should be.
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