Say the word “prep” to ambitious turn-of-the-millennium teenagers, and I bet most of them (and their parents) would reflexively think “Kaplan” or “Princeton Review” before “lacrosse stick.” But future college prospects don’t occur to Lee Fiora, the narrator of Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel by that title. Visions of strolling with athletic boys in wool sweaters are what inspire the eighth-grader from South Bend, Ind., to apply to Ault, the fictionalized Groton that serves as the setting for the latest Catcher in the Rye rewrite. The book has been praised for its acuity about adolescent status consciousness and class dynamics. Yet curiously enough, Lee herself—the witheringly perceptive outsider amid privilege—overlooks what is likely to strike the book’s natural constituency as the obvious question: Why was a nondescript, white, middle-class girl from the Midwest awarded not just one of the top-notch school’s coveted spots, but a fat scholarship, too?
If every generation gets the classic of disaffected youth it deserves, you might well expect that the heroine of Prep would at least come within hailing distance of that emblematic figure of our times: the “organization kid,” as David Brooks christened the intensively parented child, steadily amassing credentials from cradle to college. But Sittenfeld studiously avoids supplying any evidence of accomplishments that might have moved an admissions office to look favorably on this particular applicant—except, of course, for the very novel we’re reading, narrated in the first person by Lee a decade later. Yet that is after-the-fact proof of Lee’s potential. Given the information supplied within the frame of the story, readers are likely to be almost as mystified as Lee’s parents are by the process at work. The one child the Fioras knew who left home for high school went to “a fenced-in mountaintop in Colorado, a place for screwups.”
Lee is no screwup, but neither is she is a younger Charlotte Simmons, a talent from the hinterlands whose toil takes her to the top. Lee is a girl devoid not simply of the inherited attributes of the old moneyed elite but also of the acquired characteristics now de rigueur among the “striver” meritocratic elite. To start with, she lacks pushy parents who script her path toward the Ivy League goal. She hasn’t got much of a résumé either. Lee says that before Ault she’d never gotten below a B+, but that’s not much of a boast, given her own low estimation of her local public-school system; although she likes to read, she’s a year behind in math. She has no athletic or musical achievements to her credit. In fact, Lee has evidently avoided all contact with extracurricular activities. She’s merely had “short-lived hobbies”—like knitting part of a hat in sixth grade.
Lee’s utter lack of meritocratic badges is jarring, even if you assume that geographic diversity is what Ault was after. It goes against the tradition of the Salinger-inspired genre, whose best-known protagonists may be alienated but nonetheless have precocious, adult-pleasing pasts—which help explain their fatigued disillusionment. Even Holden Caulfield, kicked out of one school after another, manages to cultivate special relationships with interested teachers along the way. Gene in John Knowles’ A Separate Peace feels overshadowed by the effortlessly athletic Phineas, but he’s a star student himself. And Esther Greenwood in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar has spent years “running after good marks and prizes and grants of one sort and another” before she droops, feeling “I was letting up, slowing down, dropping clean out of the race.”
Lee’s trajectory is neither peripatetic nor tragic. Running after good marks and prizes is just what she has not done before Ault, and finds every occasion to continue to fail to do at Ault—not blazing out spectacularly, like her predecessors, but quietly seeing to it that no one could catch her being intellectually committed, socially invested, or emotionally engaged. The aloof facade is a symptom of unease, not disillusion. “I was not disengaged, I was not disinterested. … I felt strongly about everything—not just my interactions with people, their posture, or their inflections, but also the physical world, the smell of the wind …”
The public passivity she cultivates doesn’t exile her to the periphery. Quite the contrary, she ends up getting just about everything a girl could want at Ault. Lee lands, and keeps, the nicest (and smartest) of roommates, Martha, who gets elected to the coveted position of senior prefect. And Lee has unexpectedly nice (and safe) sex with the very popular boy she’s had a crush on since early in freshman year, Cross Sugarman (who also gets voted senior prefect). At the end of the novel Lee isn’t among the Ivy League applicants, but she gets into the University of Michigan, far from a “safety”—this despite undistinguished grades, especially in math, and no dedication to any other Ault endeavors (unless being intensely serious about the ritual game of “assassin” during her freshman year counts). By this time, the girl who has strategically distanced herself from the uncool kids has the temerity to register some annoyance that she’s had to settle for second-best and is heading back to the Midwest.
Some reviewers have criticized Lee’s snobbery, but I think that is Sittenfeld’s truly astute point: Lee the outsider behaves more like an old-style insider than any of the classmates whose sense of easy entitlement she believes she has so incisively identified, and has secretly envied from the moment she glimpsed the boarding-school brochures. The truth is, Martha hasn’t rested on her New England pedigree or affluence; she’s been working hard and been rewarded by classmates who (to Lee’s surprise) respect her integrity and industry and reject the other snooty nominee. Lee the astute social anatomizer is shocked to discover at the end that the glamorous Cross is part Jewish, and sobered to realize that the kid who symbolized the “cocky high-school boy … so … sure of [his] place in the world”—the figure she wished she could be—was actually not quite that: “[H]e made choices, he exerted control, his agenda succeeded.” Lee, ever playing it cool and never betraying any enthusiasm or sweat, acts like a Brahmin compared to her fellows. They are the eager grade-grubbers and go-getters she goes out of her way not to be, about which she expresses belated regret.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see Sittenfeld’s Prep eventually appear on those ninth-grade readings lists where Salinger and Plath and Knowles are still lodged these days. After all, the ultimate message—that luck and work count more than birth and wealth, and that girls do have clout, even at a place like Ault—is much more wholesome than the dour midcentury tales of adolescents dropping out of a conformist world that seems worthless. The only rub, so to speak, might be the sex. The problem isn’t that it’s overly graphic—our kids are steeped in explicitness—but that in this book, even hooking up is wholesome. Lee wishes her affair with Cross hadn’t been furtive, but in bed with him, she is completely content—giving the lie to the line she’d “heard a thousand times that a boy, or a man, can’t make you happy, that you have to be happy on your own before you can be happy with another person.” That is one lesson parents of “organization kids” don’t want their children learning too soon.