When a 17-year-old scholarship student from a middle-class family in South Bend, Indiana, attends Ault, a fictional posh East Coast prep school, she learns some hard life lessons. In a semester-by-semester flashback, Lee Fiora reminisces about her time at Ault—she eats alone in her dorm room rather than attend parties with privileged girls named Aspeth and Tab, and she snobbishly turns down a "townie" for a teenage tryst with a more popular boy. In sum, she’s alienated and alienating, and learning about her desire to trade up in life.
Random House. 416 pages. $21.95. ISBN: 1400062314
Ft. Worth Star-Telegram
"Even Fiora’s presumably successful social moments are placed in pristine perspective. … Sittenfeld considers true friendship, struggles with classwork, social snobbery, sexual experimentation, parent-child relationships and so much more through Lee Fiora. Everything we want and need to read about is here." Steve Weinberg
Rocky Mountain News
"… a pure, unrefined narrative on the transcendental experiences of adolescence. … Prep flows like an extended diary entry, and Sittenfeld’s brilliant writing sparkles in each turn, hitting the bitter isolation of adolescence spot-on." Amy L. Stoll
NY Times Book Review
"It is the sex between Lee and her crush, Cross, a boy far more popular than she is, that lifts the book, overlong at more than 400 pages, out of its sophomore slump, and restores its narrative momentum. … As it is, there is no defining moment, no Knowlesian Gene-and-Finny-in-the-tree scene where we feel that life will never be the same again, or some truth about human nature is revealed." Elissa Schappell
Sittenfeld explores the psychology of adolescence in her debut novel, putting her in a category of writers that includes J.D. Salinger, Tobias Wolff, and John Knowles. Critics hail the novel as semi-autobiographical; Sittenfeld grew up in Cincinnati and attended prep school at Groton. Thus she knows firsthand the complicated social and academic pressures at an elite, moneyed school—and the raw emotions that accompany girls on the "outside." At times, Lee’s experience is hilarious; at others, it’s heartbreaking. The author’s dialogue is excellent overall, but sometimes Lee sounds too precocious. In addition, she never achieves the "a-ha!" moment we expect from a level-headed Midwestern gal. Then again, perhaps that’s what teen angst is all about.
An American Classic
A Separate Peace | John Knowles (1960): Drawing on his experience at Phillips Exeter Academy, Knowles depicts a New England boys’ boarding school during the early part of World War II. Two friends—one a lonely intellectual and the other a handsome athlete—lose their innocence when tragedy strikes.