Prep, by Curtis Sittenfeld

I didn't know George Eliot wrote 'Sweet Valley High'...
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But Prep is impressively free from sensationalism. It is a simple bildungsroman: one girl's experience of friendship, first love, and lacrosse. Its subject matter is straight out of Teen Girl. Yet Curtis Sittenfeld approaches this subject matter with great seriousness and detailed, thoughtful gravitas. Chapters tend to end with a shift in perspective, towards a universal judgement. The overall effect is like Sweet Valley High as written by George Eliot.

Sittenfeld is a pin-sharp observer, and in Prep she needles away at class, race and character. Lee Fiora, the protagonist, is a scholarship girl. While her dorm mate receives parcels of cashmere sweaters and French chocolate, Lee's mother sends her three bumper packets of sanitary towels, with a note saying "Kroger were having a sale. Love, Mum." Aspeth Montgomery, the school's WASP princess, walks out of her bedroom leaving her fairy lights and music on. Sin-Jun, an alienated Korean student, attempts suicide, and in so doing, wins kudos. "The fact that Sin-Jun had taken pills made her interesting. It was becoming - I could feel it - a phenomenon, another story."

There is much in Prep that is uncomfortable, even disturbing. And all of it, unfortunately, rings true. Occasionally, Sittenfeld's attention to the minutiae of school life feels like it's going to become wearying (this is a 403-page novel) but somehow it never quite does. Sittenfeld can feel significance in every detail. When Lee Fiora, a self-proclaimed "dork", has a milkshake with the coolest boy in her year, she notices "a white moustache hung over his upper lip", and she feels "a quick rise of panic; for Cross to look foolish in front of me seemed a reversal of the world's natural order."

As a school story, this could not be further away from Angela Brazil. It is unflinching and never twee, and will appeal to any age. By the end, we know its anti-hero narrator Lee "Flea" Fiora inside out. We know how closely she pores over her fellow students' swanky names in the school yearbook, and how studiedly she pretends not to know them to their faces, as "it would only creep [them] out." We know how, when she goes back to her humble Midwestern home, she starts saying "therein lies the paradox" because "it's something Ault students tend to say a lot." She lacks the cult charisma of Holden Caulfield, but she is a narrator exquisitely attuned to nuance, and her outsider's candour makes her a great school campus guide. Prep, in short, is not a preparatory work but a highly accomplished novel.