Celebrating Prep 10 Years Later

In January 2005, Prep, the debut novel from a then 29-year-old Curtis Sittenfeld, hit bookstore shelves. The story of Lee Fiora's experience at Ault, a prestigious (and fictional) New England boarding school, struck a nerve with critics and readers alike. It became a New York Times bestseller, made several Best of 2005 book lists, and received a nomination for the Orange Prize. And, it made Sittenfeld an overnight literary star.

In the 10 years since its release, the novel still resonates with young women — and they often find a bit of themselves in Lee's story. The book manages to be equal parts achingly funny and brutally honest, and it captures so many of the struggles of adolescence.

Ahead, we asked four writers — Emily Gould (author of Friendship), Jazmine Hughes (associate editor at The New York Times magazine), Ruby Karp (a New York City high school freshman and writer at Hello Giggles), and Alexandra Polkinghorn (Refinery29's own director of editorial operations and a boarding school alum) to offer commentary on this contemporary classic. Then, we handed off their essays to Sittenfeld, to get her thoughts.

Each writer has her own unique high school story to share, but a couple of things unite them: appreciation for Sittenfeld's striking prose and an understanding of and empathy for Lee. Even though we each experience high school differently, Prep somehow manages to capture the heart and soul of those four long and tumultuous years.

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Photo by Lisa Corson; quote from page 74 of Prep.
Emily Gould

I loved Prep when I first read it at 23, mostly because of how accurately it depicted feeling like an outsider at a tiny school that was more like a biosphere than an institution of learning — something I’d then recently experienced. Re-reading it 10 years later, I loved it even more because I was also able to appreciate how beautifully crafted it is; I approached it, in other words, not only as a mirror to validate my feelings, but also as an envious novelist. Prep, I noticed this time around, has a dynamite structure, an airtight plot, and as a bonus, these three drop-dead-perfect moments that made me not only dog-ear the pages they appeared on, but momentarily put down the book, stare into space, and wait 'til my breathing returned to normal:

1. “The interest I felt in certain guys then confused me, because it wasn’t romantic, but I wasn’t sure what else it might be. But now I know: I wanted to take up people’s time making jokes, to tease the dean in front of the entire school, to call him by a nickname. What I wanted was to be a cocky high-school boy, so fucking sure of my place in the world.”

2. “Before and after I was involved with Cross Sugarman, I 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. All I can say is, I wish it were true.”

3. And finally, the moment when Lee’s father tells her to “stop being so impressed by bullshit.”

Why do these lines still hit me so hard — maybe even harder than they did when I first read them? To figure it out, I had to do some truly unpleasant soul-searching.

Lee’s obsession with how other people see her, her hypercritical eye for their foibles, and her weird but wholly recognizable blend of self-hatred and self-absorption is painfully familiar to me. She’s consumed with trying to control how she’s perceived, but ultimately, she utterly fails to make people like her, so much so that it’s almost as though her true aim all along was to be hated and shamed, not admired or even benignly ignored. As much as I wish it were otherwise, this is also the story of my own early life, a pattern that repeated itself throughout my teens and 20s. Over and over, I behaved in a way that tempted the world to show me its truest, darkest colors, and then when it did, I became obsessed with the results. As when Lee tells the reporter from The New York Times what she honestly thinks about her school, I often convinced myself that just telling the truth — the version of the truth that came to mind easily, regardless of who might be hurt or offended — was the right thing to do.

Of course, the wonderfully complex thing about Lee is that she’s not exactly in the wrong, and I’m not saying I was, either. The crux of everything might be in the first of those memorable lines, the one about wanting to be a cocky, teenage boy. It makes me think of how, in high school, I passed notes with friends in a notebook that got confiscated, I think, four separate times. Or when I wrote about sex with a coworker in a “secret” blog that I knew would be found. Or when I went on live TV and sassed a blowhard celebrity with un-media-trained eye-rolls. Or when I wrote, basically, anything that I wrote between the ages of 14 and 28. I now think some semiconscious part of me was working to test the theory that the world would rake me over the coals in the most sexist, condescending way possible, whether I deserved it (which I sometimes did) or not.

Some women live blithely unaware that their lives are constrained and the scale they’re able to work at is curtailed because they are female. I’ve always found it impossible to ignore this injustice, and now that I’ve outgrown taking everything personally, I’m turning that information into a mission, working on behalf all women to transcend shaming and make their voices heard.

If there’s anything even slightly unsatisfying to me about Prep, it’s the coda, wherein a late-20s Lee who’s been narrating the story of her years at boarding school gives updates on everyone’s lives so far, including her own. It’s maybe the one part of the book that belies having been written by a younger person. (Sittenfeld was just 29 when it was published.) By their late 20s, Lee’s former classmates are married, some with children, and Lee’s own life is characterized by “mildness” and “a job, graduate school, another job.” This is the only part of the book that seems blatantly unrealistic. Lee wouldn’t have grown up to be mild, or to feel nothing but “satisfaction” at “the neatness of life’s passage.” She would have grown up, I feel strongly, to have become: someone who fights daily against the unfairness of line 1; has grudgingly accepted the heartbreaking truth of line 2; and who works hard, all the time, not to be impressed with bullshit, yet often still is. Someone, for better or worse, a lot more like me.
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Quote from page 245 of Prep.
Ruby Karp

I’m Ruby Karp, a freshman at a public high school in New York City. Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep does everything right when talking about high school. First off, let me say this: No matter when you went to high school — last year or two decades ago — it is still the same. There are still mean girls, there’s still bullying, there’s still drugs, and there’s still drama. High school hasn’t really changed, except now it’s harder; we have social media.

Everyone has moments of teen angst, and everyone has been through similar situations as Prep’s protagonist, Lee. It doesn’t matter if you go to private or public school; there’s always a hierarchy, whether it be because of money, age, power — anything. I go to a performing arts public school, so instead of bragging about how many Hamptons houses we have, we’re bragging about how many auditions we’re going to.

Lee has a hard time socially, especially in the beginning of the book. I don’t think I can name anybody who hasn’t gone through some tough bullying experiences, but now, with social media, it’s even worse. Now that everyone can text, if you are someone’s prey, all they have to do is get your number or your Instagram, write something mean, and hit send. Now that kids know they don’t have to see their subject face-to-face or have their target even know who they are, the possibilities for snotty comments and public embarrassment are endless.

In person, I find kids barely even make an effort to bully one another. But, with sites like Ask.fm — where users can easily post anonymous questions and comment — you can be the target of bullies and never even know who your tormentors are. Instagram is now a new way to define your status. The more Likes or followers, the more popular you seem. It’s a new way to define and show the hierarchy some of us try so hard to avoid. (Side note: The idea of popularity is one I feel should be defied. There is no such thing as being popular. Sure, you can be well-known. But, if you consider yourself "popular," that’s holding yourself above others. The whole idea of it is disgusting.)

Beyond all the social media drama, often grown-ups forget the academic stress of high school. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a high school movie where any characters do their homework. Ever. High school, while terrifying socially, is also extremely challenging academically. From the second I started going to school, I was taught the system: You get good grades in elementary school to get into a good middle school. You get good grades in middle school to get into a good high school. You get good grades in high school to get into a good college. You get into a good college to get a good job. You get a good job to have a good life. It’s a system that’s full of bull-crap. And, because of the system, I spend over three hours on homework nightly. Teenagers are held to a crazy-high standard by society, not to mention by our peers. If you do not live up to the standard, you are an outcast — and that’s especially the case for Lee at Ault.

Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep does a fantastic job of summing up high school in a nutshell, including everything that goes through a teenager’s mind while roaming the hectic halls of the hell-hole we call school. Sittenfeld touches on something so real in her book, which is the sad reality of what teens go through 24/7. High school is definitely not perfect, but it has its moments. Once you find your people and what you love, the four years of torture don’t seem that bad.
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Quote from page 214 of Prep.
Jazmine Hughes

I remember when Prep came out in 2005. I, like Lee Fiora, was a high school freshman: gawky, unsure, overly cerebral. My inner monologue was also impossible to silence, my parents just didn't get me, and I felt alien in most social situations. In other words, I was a typical teen.

I remember avoiding the novel — its cover, with its J.Crew-esque belt, was the epitome of New England wealth, which I felt surrounded by but did not have. The title, an otherwise common noun, turned sour when hurled across a cafeteria, especially if you were its target. Besides, why would I want to read a book by a boy anyway? The novel, I assumed, was about wealthy, beautiful, blonde white people; I was already criticized for "acting white," and I didn't want to be seen reading any resemblance of a handbook. I knew about the adage "don't judge a book by its cover," of course, but I was so fearful that the book's cover would lead to others to judge me. (The Kindle was made for people like me.)

So, I skipped it, making reading choices that would boost my self-confidence. (I carried around The Vagina Monologues for months thinking it made me look provocative and cool.) Picking Prep up for the first time 10 years later, I realized: 1) I should stop judging books by their titles (I sort of liked Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus); and 2) Prep is a really good book. Lastly, I wouldn't have known what to do with it in high school.

It was something I needed in college, where I arrived in fall 2008, a cheerful, bouncy, gregarious, nervous 16-year-old. Like Lee, I felt completely out of place — "prep" is a word that could've been deftly applied to my college, too — and yes, my parents drove up in their embarrassing, hulking minivan. But what's more, I was the youngest person at college, which pretty much scared away potential suitors and lab partners alike.

In college, I had panic attacks when the boy I liked (whom I was usually avoiding) entered the room. In college, I had a confusing sexual relationship with a guy who refused to talk about it, who laid with me at night and yet seemed so distant during the day. In college, I shoved my parents' socioeconomic status in the back of my closet like it was a ripped comforter, working campus jobs in order to have spending money to go to the mall and buy yet another tube dress to wear that Saturday night. In college, I was a far cry from my nerdy, gawky, yet ultimately happy high school self. Things were bound to come crashing down.

There's a line in Prep that Lee thinks while visiting Sin-Jun in the hospital: “I wanted my life to start — but in those rare moments when it seemed like something might actually change, panic shot through me.” I read it and immediately wrote it down, for it encapsulated everything I felt in those years: sitting on the sidelines, desperately wishing for a place at in the spotlight, getting it, and rejecting it immediately — running away and screaming, "This is not what I wanted." It's illogical, but true. For years, there was a repeating refrain directed at my parents: I'm smart, let me live my own life. In college, at long last, I had gained control of it all. I decided when I woke up, when I ate, when I went out — and I felt woefully ill-equipped.

That's the beauty of Prep, and particularly Lee. You'll find reviews of this book that tear Lee Fiora apart — she was "whiny" and "immature," a "loathsome, spineless, vacuous sad-sack," and "self-absorbed." But, think back to the time when you were 16, when a single look from a boy you liked could make or break your entire month, when you were convinced your parents served no other purpose than to ruin your life, when getting through a day without crying was an admirable feat. Think back to when you were 16 — weren't you that way, too?
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Quote from page 211 of Prep.
Alexandra Polkinghorn

When I agreed to write this, I hadn’t realized how long it had actually been since I read Prep. Sittenfeld’s novel came out at the very beginning of my last term at Phillips Exeter Academy, an archetypal boarding school not unlike Sittenfeld’s fictional Ault School. I bought it at our on campus bookstore to read on spring break, at the risk of sounding twee.

Like Lee, I am of several minds when it comes to my years spent at boarding school. While her culture shock may have been a bit more radical than mine (the differences between my home of Southeastern Maine and Exeter’s Northeastern New Hampshire are visible only to the most trained eye), I also arrived with very little context for what this experience would be, other than that I would ostensibly be receiving a strong education and shouldn’t be flip about it. Both of my parents had attended public school their entire lives and would have preferred to have me at home with them.

Lee's emotional ups and downs and penchant for the melodramatic were so realistic to me — these feelings that are overly indulged when children are left, in many ways, to govern themselves. Having said this, I didn’t feel the strife of socialization that she does in the book — the chasm between her and her classmates. I was so far from being the top student, or the top anything, which helped make me accessible and able to make friends easily.

I also remember always feeling very young and, unlike Lee, I didn’t feel the tension of impending adulthood that would come in college. I went into Exeter a child and left feeling more or less still like a kid. My days were mostly filled with studying, running cross-country, and avoiding studying and running by lazing around the dining hall with my classmates. The consuming thoughts that would engross so much of our 20s — money, sex, jobs — were still a ways on the horizon for me then.

In writing this, I've thought a lot about Lee and her contemporaries, and me and mine as I look down the barrel of my 10-year reunion in May. Exeter gifted me a collection of intelligent, curious, thoughtful people with whom I’ve maintained friendships for over a decade. I’m writing this from the East Village apartment of two people with whom I went to high school. There are still moments, though, when we revert back to 15-year-old prep school students: insecure, entitled, and occasionally cruel, not unlike the Lee’s classmates at Ault.

Sittenfeld writes that “There are people we treat wrong and later we're prepared to treat other people right.” Ultimately, I appreciated and resonated with Sittenfeld’s description of a group of people who are a work in progress, who are trying to balance out youth and a lack of emotional maturity with ambition and tremendous internal and external pressure. I’m not sure any of us have found the perfect equilibrium yet, but we’re certainly still working on it. After all, “Goodness without knowledge...is weak and feeble, yet knowledge without goodness is dangerous,” (John Phillips, natch).
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Courtesy of Random House.
Curtis Sittenfeld

I read these essays with a combination of delight and self-consciousness, a bit like how I imagine I’d feel listening to the eulogy at my own funeral — or, to make a less morbid comparison, how I’d feel receiving the Cecil B. DeMille Award at the Golden Globes. Ten years both is and isn’t a long time, but given that our attention spans have never been shorter, it’s gratifying to have written a novel that still speaks to readers a decade after its publication. One of the things I especially get a kick out of in the essays is that different themes and sentences resonate with different readers.

I agree wholeheartedly with Ruby Karp that social media has surely changed adolescence in dramatic and often troubling ways, and I’m relieved it didn’t exist when Lee Fiora and I were in high school. I love Jazmine Hughes’ reminiscences of entering college at 16, which sounds like its own novel. I’m interested in the ways that Lee’s experiences did and didn’t mirror Alexandra Polkinghorn’s time at an Ault-like school. And, for any of us who have wondered how Lee Fiora turns out in adulthood, I’m fascinated to discover that she grows up to be…Emily Gould! (Is this why Gould’s work has always spoken to me so profoundly?)

I’m sometimes asked whom I envision my readers to be, and the answer varies depending on which book I’m working on. Ultimately, I think a novel — mine or someone else’s — belongs to any reader who chooses to make it her own.
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