Friday, September 20, 2013

Pondering Prep

There are many things I could write about Curtis Sittenfeld's coming of age novel Prep. One week later I still cannot fully make sense of my thoughts. So, for the purposes of this post, I will only remark upon the sexual relationships of the main character.

Prep tells the story of Lee, a young, bookish girl from Indiana who, through her own planning and effort, is accepted in to a preparatory boarding school in Massachusetts. Despite her parents misgivings, Lee attends on a scholarship and narrates her trials and tribulations, both internal and external, of her time there. A large part of the book takes place in Lee's mind - she internalizes many of her feelings, rarely exposing her true self to those around her. To be honest, I could not relate to Lee very well. I myself was a fairly regular high school student. I generally enjoyed academics, with few exceptions, and never struggled socially. Not to say I was Miss. Popular, but I floated somewhere in the middle of the pack and had a core group of friends, all the time remaining friendly with everyone.

During Lee's freshman year she develops a crush on a male student named Cross (after a brief interlude where she contemplates her own sexuality and the possibility that she could be gay). Throughout four years of high school there are only a handful of times when Lee and Cross interact. Much of the novel is spent dissecting her friendships with other girls and her general social awkwardness and insecurity. So, when Cross, seemingly out of the blue, slips in to her bed one night early in senior year, I am angry, confused, alarmed, and unconvinced. 

Unconvinced because the author failed to prepare me for this development. Lee embarks on a "relationship" with Cross that continues throughout the school year. I am embarrassed for Lee (perhaps that is the point). The entire relationship is degrading and ends in humiliation. While I could hang Cross for his part in the matter, Lee has pitifully low self esteem when the whole thing starts and she immediately tells him she doesn't expect or ask anything of him. The second time they are together Lee tells him "when we see each other in school we can just act normal." He doesn't understand and when she replies with "I won't come and kiss you in the morning at breakfast . . . it's not like I expect you to bring me flowers."

I am so angry with Lee - even one week after finishing the book. I am angry at Sittenfeld for putting Lee in this situation. I am angry with Martha (Lee's roommate) for not being more firm with her disapproval of the whole thing. 

Now, before you jump down my throat and accuse me of being a prude, let me explain. Lee comes from a small town in Indiana. In all the scenes with her parents they are upstanding, supportive, seemingly loving parents. One of their most memorable moments occurs when they come visit for parents day of her junior year and a horrible argument ensues because Lee is embarrassed by her parents middle-class status. Lee's parents are clearly angry because they taught her better - it's implied they taught her to value people. In particular, Lee's father is appalled by a friend of hers with plans to stay over with a boy. This begins the argument (in which Lee reveals to the reader point-blank that she's never fooled around), which leads me to believe Lee was raised to value herself and her body and not throw it around to a boy who didn't even so much as buy her dinner first.

So when Lee kisses Cross for the first time and engages in oral sex in one meeting, I am flabbergasted.  Prior to this Lee had never been kissed by any boy, let alone the object of her affections. Sure, Lee has low self confidence, but Sittenfeld did little to prepare or convince me she would allow this to happen. I just don't buy it. Lee and Cross begin sleeping together regularly, with few people knowing and Cross consistently attempting to avoid detection. The cheapness of their interludes doesn't help the matter. 

In their final confrontation Cross is certainly a jerk. I don't want to ignore the blame he so surely deserves. I'm simply commenting on the plot holes I wish to be filled. Perhaps the relationship is a manifestation of Lee's attempt to be accepted, but to my mind her great friendship with Martha fulfilled that need. Sure, she pines after Cross throughout high school, but not so much that it's constantly occupying her thoughts. Lee rarely mentions Cross to anyone until he and Martha are both elected class prefect. 

It seems as if, with other things, Lee didn't know how she felt about sex, so she allowed Cross to run the show. Earlier in the novel Conchita, a mutual friend of Lee and Martha, angrily tells Lee she is "shallow and conformist. You don't have an identity, so you define yourself by who you spend time with." That seems to be the case with Lee throughout the novel. So, in light of this, I can't fault her character for the toxic relationship with Cross. I want to, I want to shake her, I want to remind her of her own worth. I believe the novel would have succeeded in its portrayal of high school and the terrible parts of ourselves the experience can being out without the Cross relationship. Other than her friends disapproval, Lee seems ultimately unscathed by her experience with Cross. There isn't enough novel remaining to indicate she learned something from it. I am sure every girl endures mistreatment from a guy in one form or another and certainly to varying degrees, and I wish Sittenfeld had explored the effects of this relationship further, rather than just the immediate affects. 

Because, ultimately, the end of Lee's story could have transpired in the same fashion without Cross. The interview, the article, the school administration, graduation - everything could have happened without Cross.If anyone out there has read this book, I would love to hear your thoughts. I owe a dear friend of mine some credit on this one - over G-Chat she helped me bounce around some ideas and discuss the book in some way. 

Have you ever read a book and been upset by the subject matter? 

All quotes from Prep, by Curtis Sittenfeld, Random House Trade Paperbacks, New York, 2005

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