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Curtis Sittenfeld’s debut novel, Prep, is an insightful, achingly funny coming-of-age story as well as a brilliant dissection of class, race, and gender in a hothouse of adolescent angst and ambition.
Lee Fiora is an intelligent, observant fourteen-year-old when her father drops her off in front of her dorm at the prestigious Ault School in Massachusetts. She leaves her animated, affectionate family in South Bend, Indiana, at least in part because of the boarding school’s glossy brochure, in which boys in sweaters chat in front of old brick buildings, girls in kilts hold lacrosse sticks on pristinely mown athletic fields, and everyone sings hymns in chapel.
As Lee soon learns, Ault is a cloistered world of jaded, attractive teenagers who spend summers on Nantucket and speak in their own clever shorthand. Both intimidated and fascinated by her classmates, Lee becomes a shrewd observer of–and, ultimately, a participant in–their rituals and mores. As a scholarship student, she constantly feels like an outsider and is both drawn to and repelled by other loners. By the time she’s a senior, Lee has created a hard-won place for herself at Ault. But when her behavior takes a self-destructive and highly public turn, her carefully crafted identity within the community is shattered.
Ultimately, Lee’s experiences–complicated relationships with teachers; intense friendships with other girls; an all-consuming preoccupation with a classmate who is less than a boyfriend and more than a crush; conflicts with her parents, from whom Lee feels increasingly distant, coalesce into a singular portrait of the painful and thrilling adolescence universal to us all.
From the Hardcover edition.
Under the Cover
An excerpt from Prep
I think that everything, or at least the part of everything that happened to me, started with the Roman architecture mix-up. Ancient History was my first class of the day, occurring after morning chapel and roll call, which was not actually roll call but a series of announcements that took place in an enormous room with twenty-foot-high Palladian windows, rows and rows of desks with hinged tops that you lifted to store your books inside, and mahogany panels on the walls—one for each class since Ault’s founding in 1882—engraved with the name of every person who had graduated from the school. The two senior prefects led roll call, standing at a desk on a platform and calling on the people who’d signed up ahead of time to make announcements. My own desk, assigned alphabetically, was near the platform, and because I didn’t talk to my classmates who sat around me, I spent the lull before roll call listening to the prefects’ exchanges with teachers or other students or each other. The prefects’ names were Henry Thorpe and Gates Medkowski. It was my fourth week at the school, and I didn’t know much about Ault, but I did know that Gates was the first girl in Ault’s history to have been elected prefect.
The teachers’ announcements were straightforward and succinct: Please remember that your adviser request forms are due by noon on Thursday. The students’ announcements were lengthy—the longer roll call was, the shorter first period would be—and filled with double entendres: Boys’ soccer is practicing on Coates Field today, which, if you don’t know where it is, is behind the headmaster’s house, and if you still don’t know where it is, ask Fred. Where are you, Fred? You wanna raise your hand, man? There’s Fred, everyone see Fred? Okay, so Coates Field. And remember—bring your balls.
When the announcements were finished, Henry or Gates pressed a button on the side of the desk, like a doorbell, there was a ringing throughout the schoolhouse, and we all shuffled off to class. In Ancient History, we were making presentations on different topics, and I was one of the students presenting that day. From a library book, I had copied pictures of the Colosseum, the Pantheon, and the Baths of Diocletian, then glued the pictures onto a piece of poster board and outlined the edges with green and yellow markers. The night before, I’d stood in front of the mirror in the dorm bathroom practicing what I’d say, but then someone had come in, and I’d pretended I was washing my hands and left.
I was third; right before me was Jamie Lorison. Mrs. Van der Hoef had set a podium in the front of the classroom, and Jamie stood behind it, clutching index cards. “It is a tribute to the genius of Roman architects,” he began, “that many of the buildings they designed more than two thousand years ago still exist today for modern peoples to visit and enjoy.”
My heart lurched. The genius of Roman architects was my topic, not Jamie’s. I had difficulty listening as he continued, though certain familiar phrases emerged: the aqueducts, which were built to transport water . . . the Colosseum, originally called the Flavian Amphitheater . . .
Mrs. Van der Hoef was standing to my left, and I leaned toward her and whispered, “Excuse me.”
She seemed not to have heard me.
“Mrs. Van der Hoef?” Then—later, this gesture seemed particularly humiliating—I reached out to touch her forearm. She was wearing a maroon silk dress with a collar and a skinny maroon belt, and I only brushed my fingers against the silk, but she drew back as if I’d pinched her. She glared at me, shook her head, and took several steps away.
“I’d like to pass around some pictures,” I heard Jamie say. He lifted a stack of books from the floor. When he opened them, I saw colored pictures of the same buildings I had copied in black-and-white and stuck to poster board.
Then his presentation ended. Until that day, I had never felt anything about Jamie Lorison, who was red-haired and skinny and breathed loudly, but as I watched him take his seat, a mild, contented expression on his face, I loathed him.
“Lee Fiora, I believe you’re next,” Mrs. Van der Hoef said.
“See, the thing is,” I began, “maybe there’s a problem.”
I could feel my classmates looking at me with growing interest. Ault prided itself on, among other things, its teacher-student ratio, and there were only twelve of us in the class. When all their eyes were on me at once, however, that did not seem like such a small number.
“I just can’t go,” I finally said.
“I beg your pardon?” Mrs. Van der Hoef was in her late fifties, a tall, thin woman with a bony nose. I’d heard that she was the widow of a famous archaeologist, not that any archaeologists were famous to me.
“See, my presentation is—or it was going to be—I thought I was supposed to talk about—but maybe, now that Jamie—”
“You’re not making sense, Miss Fiora,” Mrs. Van der Hoef said. “You need to speak clearly.”
“If I go, I’ll be saying the same thing as Jamie.”
“But you’re presenting on a different topic.”
“Actually, I’m talking about architecture, too.”
She walked to her desk and ran her finger down a piece of paper. I had been looking at her while we spoke, and now that she had turned away, I didn’t know what to do with my eyes. My classmates were still watching me. During the school year so far, I’d spoken in classes only when I was called on, which was not often; the other kids at Ault were enthusiastic about participating. Back in my junior high in South Bend, Indiana, many classes had felt like one-on-one discussions between the teacher and me, while the rest of the students daydreamed or doodled. Here, the fact that I did the reading didn’t distinguish me. In fact, nothing distinguished me. And now, in my most lengthy discourse to date, I was revealing myself to be strange and stupid.
“You’re not presenting on architecture,” Mrs. Van der Hoef said. “You’re presenting on athletics.”
“Athletics?” I repeated. There was no way I’d have volunteered for such a topic.
She thrust the sheet of paper at me, and there was my name, Lee Fiora—Athletics, in her writing, just below James Lorison—Architecture. We’d signed up for topics by raising our hands in class; clearly, she had misunderstood me.
“I could do athletics,” I said uncertainly. “Tomorrow I could do them.”
“Are you suggesting that the students presenting tomorrow have their time reduced on your behalf?”
“No, no, of course not. But maybe a different day, or maybe—I could do it whenever. Just not today. All I’d be able to talk about today is architecture.”
“Then you’ll be talking about architecture. Please use the lectern.”
I stared at her. “But Jamie just went.”
“Miss Fiora, you are wasting class time.”
As I stood and gathered my notebook and poster board, I thought about how coming to Ault had been an enormous error. I would never have friends; the best I’d be able to hope for from my classmates would be pity. It had already been obvious to me that I was different from them, but I’d imagined that I could lie low for a while, getting a sense of them, then reinvent myself in their image. Now I’d been uncovered.
I gripped either side of the podium and looked down at my notes. “One of the most famous examples of Roman architecture is the Colosseum,” I began. “Historians believe that the Colosseum was called the Colosseum because of a large statue of the Colossus of Nero which was located nearby.” I looked up from my notes. The faces of my classmates were neither kind nor unkind, sympathetic nor unsympathetic, engaged nor bored.
“The Colosseum was the site of shows held by the emperor or other aristocrats. The most famous of these shows was—” I paused. Ever since childhood, I have felt the onset of tears in my chin, and, at this moment, it was shaking. But I was not going to cry in front of strangers. “Excuse me,” I said, and I left the classroom.
There was a girls’ bathroom across the hall, but I knew not to go in there because I would be too easy to find. I ducked into the stairwell and hurried down the steps to the first floor and out a side door. Outside it was sunny and cool, and with almost everyone in class, the campus felt pleasantly empty. I jogged toward my dorm. Maybe I would leave altogether: hitchhike to Boston, catch a bus, ride back home to Indiana. Fall in the Midwest would be pretty but not overly pretty—not like in New England, where they called the leaves foliage. Back in South Bend, my younger brothers would be spending the evenings kicking the soccer ball in the backyard and coming in for dinner smelling like boy-sweat; they’d be deciding on their Halloween costumes, and when my father carved the pumpkin, he would hold the knife over his head and stagger toward my brothers with a maniacal expression on his face, and as they ran shrieking into the other room, my mother would say, “Terry, quit scaring them.”
I reached the courtyard. Broussard’s dorm was one of eight on the east side of campus, four boys’ dorms and four girls’ dorms forming a square, with granite benches in the middle. When I looked out the window of my room, I often saw couples using the benches, the boy sitting with his legs spread in front of him, the girl standing between his legs, her hands perhaps set on his shoulders briefly, before she laughed and lifted them. At this moment, only one of the benches was occupied. A girl in cowboy boots and a long skirt lay on her back, one knee propped up in a triangle, one arm slung over her eyes.
As I passed, she lifted her arm. It was Gates Medkowski. “Hey,” she said.
We almost made eye contact, but then we didn’t. It made me unsure of whether she was addressing me, which was an uncertainty I often felt when spoken to. I kept walking.
“Hey,” she said again. “Who do you think I’m talking to? We’re the only ones here.” But her voice was kind; she wasn’t making fun of me.
“Sorry,” I said.
“Are you a freshman?”
“Are you going to your dorm right now?”
I nodded again.
“I assume you don’t know this, but you’re not allowed in the dorm during classes.” She swung her legs around, righting herself. “None of us are,” she said. “For Byzantine reasons that I wouldn’t even try to guess at. Seniors are allowed to roam, but roaming only means outside, the library, or the mail room, so that’s a joke.”
I said nothing.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said and began to cry.
“Oh God,” Gates said. “I didn’t mean to upset you. Here, come sit down.” She was patting the bench beside her, and then she stood, walked toward me, set one arm around my back—my shoulders were heaving—and guided me toward the bench. When we were sitting, she passed me a blue bandanna that smelled of incense; even through the blur of my tears, I was interested by the fact that she carried this accessory. I hesitated to blow my nose—my snot would be on Gates Medkowski’s bandanna—but my whole face seemed to be leaking.
“What’s your name?” she said.
“Lee.” My voice was high and shaky.
“So what’s wrong? Why aren’t you in class or study hall?”
She laughed. “For some reason, I don’t think that’s true.”
When I told her what had happened, she said, “Van der Hoef likes to come off like the dragon lady. God knows why. Maybe it’s menopause. But she’s actually pretty nice most of the time.”
“I don’t think she likes me.”
“Oh, don’t worry. It’s still so early in the school year. She’ll have forgotten all about this by November.”
“But I left in the middle of class,” I said.
Gates waved one hand through the air. “Don’t even think about it,” she said. “The teachers here have seen everything. We imagine ourselves as distinct entities, but in their eyes, we merge into a great mass of adolescent neediness. You know what I mean?”
I nodded, though I was pretty sure I had no idea; I’d never heard someone close to my own age talk the way she was talking.
“Ault can be a tough place,” she said. “Especially at first.”
At this, I felt a new rush of tears. She knew. I blinked several times.
“It’s like that for everyone,” she said.
I looked at her, and, as I did, I realized for the first time that she was very attractive: not pretty exactly, but striking, or maybe handsome. She was nearly six feet tall and had pale skin, fine features, eyes of such a washed-out blue they were almost gray, and a massive amount of long light brown hair that was a rough texture and unevenly cut; in places, in the sunlight, there were glints of gold in it. As we’d been talking, she’d pulled it into a high, loose bun with shorter pieces of hair falling around her face. In my own experience, creating such a perfectly messy bun required a good fifteen minutes of maneuvering before a mirror. But everything about Gates seemed effortless. “I’m from Idaho, and I was the biggest hayseed when I got here,” she was saying. “I practically arrived on a tractor.”
“I’m from Indiana,” I said.
“See, you must be way cooler than I was because at least Indiana is closer to the East Coast than Idaho.”
“But people here have been to Idaho. They ski there.” I knew this because Dede Schwartz, one of my two roommates, kept on her desk a framed picture of her family standing on a snowy slope, wearing sunglasses and holding poles. When I’d asked her where it was taken, she’d said Sun Valley, and when I’d looked up Sun Valley in my atlas, I’d learned it was in Idaho.
“True,” Gates said. “But I’m not from the mountains. Anyway, the important thing to remember about Ault is why you applied in the first place. It was for the academics, right? I don’t know where you were before, but Ault beats the hell out of the public high school in my town. As for the politics here, what can you do? There’s a lot of posturing, but it’s all kind of meaningless.”
I wasn’t certain what she meant by posturing—it made me think of a row of girls in long white nightgowns, standing up very straight and balancing hardcover books on their heads.
Gates looked at her watch, a man’s sports watch with black plastic straps. “Listen,” she said. “I better get going. I have Greek second period. What’s your next class?”
“Algebra. But I left my backpack in Ancient History.”
“Just grab it when the bell rings. Don’t worry about talking to Van der Hoef. You can sort things out with her later, after you’ve both cooled off.”
She stood, and I stood, too. We started walking back toward the schoolhouse—it seemed I was not returning to South Bend after all, at least not today. We passed the roll call room, which during the school day functioned as the study hall. I wondered if any of the students were looking out the window, watching me walk with Gates Medkowski.
Curtis Sittenfeld is the bestselling author of the novels Prep, The Man of My Dreams, American Wife, Sisterland, and Eligible, which have been translated into twenty-five languages, as well as the forthcoming short story collection You Think It, I’ll Say It. Her nonfiction has been published widely, including in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Time, and Glamour, and broadcast on public radio’s This American Life. A native of Cincinnati, she currently lives with her family in St. Louis.