In this hit debut novel, a middle-class Midwestern teenager named Lee tries to fit in at an elite East Coast boarding school, offering a dissection of class, race, and gender in a hothouse of adolescent angst and ambition.
Curtis Sittenfeld's debut is an addictive portrait of adolescence—The OC meets Donna Tartt's The Secret History with flashes of Clueless ... Prep doesn't come sugar-coated: it is dark and obsessive examination of the cruelty of the coolness hierarchy ... The schoolmates who touch Lee's life, not that she notices until years later (the novel is written in retrospect), provide some of the book's most poignant moments ... Sittenfeld's strength is in making this experience feel universal. Despite the American specifics, everyone will wince with recognition at the horror of being a teenager. It's great to relive it all, now that it is happening to someone else.
It’s a reliable friend, with heartbreaking, curious one-liners...and a relatively unexciting plot that is still somehow riveting. And maybe it’s Prep’s lack of thrill that gets me; witnessing our heroine, Lee, navigate high school in an average way and grow up—slowly, so slowly—fulfills a sort of voyeuristic tendency in me ... I felt such an immediate kinship with [Lee] ... Reading the book felt like that compulsive need to look at yourself, not out of vanity, not really, but out of the fascination of momentarily witnessing yourself as others might ... It’s maybe the best book I’ve ever read, because it does what books should—it puts you right there with the characters, it entertains, and it forces you to confront parts of yourself that you’ve hidden away.
It would be very easy to blame the school's not-so-subtle caste system for Lee's problems and unhappiness, but Sittenfeld doesn't. Lee is no saint, and no victim, but rather a willing cog in the machine of exclusion ... 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. Sittenfeld captures the teenage hook-up experience in a way that isn't too cringingly young-adult or clinically distant ... In the end, however, Lee's passivity, her refusal to pursue anything past the point where it might get embarrassing, limits her as a character. This isn't to say the story doesn't feel true to life. Sittenfeld's dialogue is so convincing that one wonders if she didn't wear a wire under her hockey kilt ... What is of interest, and why Prep deserves pride of place on any summer recommended reading list, is the incisive and evenhanded way in which Sittenfeld explores issues of class ... Sittenfeld's novel sets up dramatic expectations that aren't met. By the end of the book—which culminates in graduation, naturally—we see that life at Ault hasn't changed Lee in any profound way.