Lee Fiora was very much looking forward to attending Ault School in Massachusetts. Both a boarding school and a prep school, Ault was a place that Lee had been fantasizing about attending. Her attraction to this particular school started when she first picked up a brochure.
Photos of carefully manicured green lawns, old brick buildings, and nicely dressed students gave Lee the impression that the school would be everything she had hoped for. Certainly, it would be world’s better than the public schools in South Bend, Indiana, that she had been attending so far. Lee was an overachiever, and as such, was ahead of her classmates and completely bored.
The entire story is told to the reader through the viewpoint of Lee Fiora. Most of it is in the present, as Lee experiences it. Every so often, the vantage point changes from the present to the future, where a future Lee explains more details than present Lee was aware of. Prep is a coming of age story that takes place back when it was normal for an entire dorm to be sharing one land-line phone (located in a public area).
Every teenager that attends a new high school experiences at least a little bit of nervousness. It is developmentally typical for teens to worry that they won’t make any friends, that they are wearing the wrong kind of clothing, or that something embarrassing will happen to them in front of their peers.
Lee Fiora is no exception. If anything, she’s much more focused on these kinds of problems than a typical teen would be. Lee has a tendency to overthink absolutely everything. It seemed to me that Lee might have been suffering from anxiety. There were times when her racing mind caused her to freeze up, or to retreat back to her dorm. This tendency isn’t something Lee loses as she grows from freshman to graduate.
I don’t think that Lee’s anxiety is entirely her fault, though. She has basically dropped herself into a school where everyone else knows the social rules – except for her. The other kids come from very rich families, and many have known each other since they were little. By the time this group reached high school, they all knew how to dress for formal dinners, who was in what clique, and that it wasn’t socially acceptable to appear to be dating one of the kitchen workers.
Part of the book is about Lee trying to learn all these unwritten rules, in the hopes that she will fit in. It doesn’t take long for Lee to realize that the perfect scholastic fantasy world she carefully constructed in her head was not ever going to match the reality of Ault. She struggles with this.
Another part of the book is about Lee trying to figure herself out. She doesn’t know what kind of music she likes. Lee came to Ault without having the slightest idea if she wanted to play a sport or which one to try. She has yet to discover what her talents are. Previously, Lee was the smartest kid in the class. At Ault, everyone is an excellent student. The biggest part of her identity has been washed out. What is she now?
Lee is also trying to sort out her sexuality. Early on in the book, Lee is unsure if she has a crush on a girl who was nice to her for a few minutes when Lee was very upset. Is what she feels an attraction, or a desperate need to make a friend? Lee starts off incredibly lonely and adjusting to living away from her family for the first time. How does one cope with that kind of prolonged loneliness? One of her classmates finds a dramatic and dangerous way to deal with it (which shocks everyone).
Lee obsesses over a boy for the majority of her time at Ault school. This, oddly enough, brings out one good result. Lee’s attraction to this boy causes her to become more social. She decides to participate in school-wide game in the hopes that the boy will notice her. The game is called “Assassin”, and would never be played today. Personally, I remember the game from the 1990’s, when my university arranged an “Assassin” game for students to play. Times have changed.
The bad results that happen due to Lee’s obsession with the boy are ones she doesn’t figure out right away. She misses the opportunity to have dated someone else. Lee views the interaction she has with this boy through rose colored glasses, right up until the unpleasant truth finally becomes clear to her.
Curtis Sittenfield has created a coming-of-age story from the viewpoint of a teenage girl. The prep school world she created is layered, and detailed, and well worth visiting. That being said, I think this book is one that has an “expiration date”.
It is best read by someone who is about to attend high school, who is in high school, or who is about to leave home to attend college for the very first time. I read this book while in my 40’s, and enjoyed it, but also felt that Lee’s constant overthinking was weighing me down. I suspect younger readers, who are closer to the age of Lee Fiora, would have a different reaction.