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Spotlight on Prep (and me)

June 28, 2010

Spotlights contain spoilers, although this one, maybe not so much.

I was surprised to find that Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep: A Novel got a lot of one-star reviews on Goodreads.  I don’t know why I’m always surprised by these things; sometimes, reading book reviews are no different than reading comments on YouTube.  Expecting them to be thoughtful and…oh, who am I kidding?  Most of the people are there are casual readers who post only when they hate something.

But for some reason, I didn’t expect them to hate Prep.

First off, the main complaint about Prep was about the protagonist, Lee.  I don’t think we’re supposed to root for her; she is utterly passive, to the point where she will go a week without a conversation with someone if the last conversation was a good one (she doesn’t want to mar their opinion of her).  But I think that there’s a type of girl who will understand her, and wish that they could’ve had that detachment, even if it was faked.  I am definitely one of that type, or rather I was, back in high school.  People saw me as detached; I saw myself, like Lee, as completely emotionally involved but afraid to reveal the depth of that emotion.  Cool people didn’t care as much as I did, because they had better things to do.  However I, unlike Lee, couldn’t keep my mouth shut, and lived in a constant state of mortification.  It was a world-ending event if I wasn’t invited somewhere, if a guy didn’t like me back.  And yet…people would always say how hard they had to work to be part of the crowd, and how easy it seemed for me to not care whether I fit in.

Oh people (hey, Josh), I did care.  I cared a lot.

I guess it’s difficult for me to understand why someone would hate her because it would be like hating my younger self, or part of my adult self.  Passivity in protagonists isn’t simple; we expect our heroes to be heroic and our heroines to be feisty.  We expect our protagonists to progress–and this is the second biggest complaint I saw–but Lee doesn’t get very far, although from the beginning of the book she’s gone miles, but miles to a place maybe half-way to where we want her to be.  I also think there’s a generation gap going on here.  I wonder at the ages of some of the reviewers.  Lee would be a few years older than me, maybe five tops.  Boys and girls were more on par (there weren’t even fitted t-shirts that I knew of till I was in my mid-20s!), but passivity in teenage girls among their male peers was sort of a given.

As I said, I’ve been sick, dizzy sick, terrible sick.  Friday night was my high school reunion.  It was $35 for beef and beer at a place usually inhabited by fratboys (according to my ex-bf, who lives nearby).  For a broke-ass vegan who’s never been inclined to even TRY beer in her 32 years of living, the venue wasn’t exactly pulling me in.  There was exactly ONE person there I wanted to see, who I hadn’t seen in a few years but only because of my back and her general lack of transportation, as she’s a city gal now.  Still, we were going to meet ahead of time.  I thought about letting myself get talked into going.  But then I got sick.  My meds were literally keeping me out for over half the day.  It just wasn’t possible.

Today, one of the women organizing posted pictures, and I was just…relieved I didn’t go, frankly.  I feel terrible for saying it, but looking at the pictures, I could not dredge up one post-8th grade memory that we could share as small talk.  Don’t get me wrong, I knew almost everyone’s names–I have an excellent memory for names, and random facts about people, like who they dated 15 years ago even if I barely knew them–but I shared nothing with them.  This isn’t to say I didn’t have friends back then, but they weren’t among my class.  I had friends who were a year or two older, or a year or two younger, or who went to other schools, but…I kept in touch with the people I wanted to keep in touch with, for the most part, which as far as I can tell is literally that one friend.  The guys now all seem a lot like my cousins–big, boisterous, balding, polo-wearing beer-loving sports-watching dudes with whom I have nothing in common–and the women seem cut from the same cloth that I rebelled against from the time I started high school.  I don’t think I could’ve comfortably had the 400th conversation about little Madison turning 4 by the middle of the event.  I think it would’ve bored me.

And in part I feel like an asshole for saying that, but even when I wanted to be Cool Girl, I loathed that “I have so many things to do” attitude, because even when I talk to my friend, who I love dearly, I always feel like if the conversation goes too far under the surface, it’s like I’ve used up too much of her time, the conversation needs to end, and talk-to-ya-next-year.  I would NEVER call this friend shallow, and yet…conversations with her almost always feel as if they are.  Conversations with most people are like that, and I hate it.  I have always hated it, I will always hate it, and I choose the people closest to me in part based off the fact that they’re willing to talk…deeper.  My concept of Cool Girl was someone who wasn’t as emotionally attached to situations, but it was never someone who wasn’t attached at all.  I just wished then that I didn’t FEEL so much.  Those late-night diner (or, in our case, Dalt’s) and basement/den conversations are some of my most cherished memories of high school; if I could’ve hurt less every time I wasn’t sure I was invited or if someone didn’t like me, like, 110%, I think I would’ve been blissful so long as we kept having conversations like that, about things that mattered, not hair or clothes but music and books and social issues.

I am such a child of the ’90s, I know that.

My yearbook is filled with signatures with comments about how “different” and “unique” I was, how I said what I wanted to say and did what I wanted to do.  I wonder if my impression on these people is stronger than theirs was on me; despite their popularity, I wonder if maybe I was the one who stood out just by the sheer fact of not having the same interests, the same ability to close one’s mouth occasionally.  So when I read about someone like Lee, I wonder, if the book were from another perspective, would she have been as invisible as she believed she was most of her time at prep school?  Or was she admired for not being cliqueish, for not always being at whatever was the popular event of the week.  (My casual college buddy Josh, a few years later, in a letter, paraphrased: “I was always impressed by how you didn’t go hang out with everyone at night.  Even when I was tired, I would go, but you were off doing your own thing.”  Josh, 1) I didn’t know how to play Risk, 2) I was mortified about messing around with your one friend who didn’t even really seem to like me, probably because I was so damn insecure, and 3) I was also probably crying into my pillow about how everyone was playing Risk but me, even though I’d been asked to go.)

How could I hate Lee, even if at times I grew angry at her passivity?  I feel like Sittenfeld nailed the emotional experience of high school.  Take away the dorm rooms and maybe a third of the class issues, and it’s all right there.

Anyway, I think it’s the whole high school reunion thing that made me give the book five stars on Goodreads; until about halfway through, I was going to give it four, and I thought, Damn, it’s been a while since I gave out five stars on something.  I’m sure if I reread it a few years from now, it’ll go down to four.  But I enjoyed myself.


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