Book Review



Author: Curtis Sittenfeld
Publisher: Random House Inc., 2005
Page Count: 406

By Dee Dee Azhikakath

(UMCom) -- It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. It was high school.

No matter your age, high school can seem like a long time ago. For some, it’s a time best viewed in the rearview mirror; for others, it represents the glory years. But whichever your outlook, high school is where everyone experiences the growing pains of searching for an identity and a place in this world. The fashions, classes, dances and personalities – all are reminders of a time when emotions run deep and self-discovery can be both painful and liberating.

Remember the awkwardness and uncertainties you felt during high school? Now imagine experiencing it in a foreign culture. In the case of 13-year-old Lee Fiora of South Bend, Ind., the foreign culture was a prep school in Massachusetts. For a middle-class girl brimming with teen angst, the brochures from Ault Academy presented an idealized picture of escape from her "Plain Jane" family, high school and boys in South Bend. Yet after she "…traded away [her] family for this glossiness," reality sets in. Is it possible prep school is not everything she imagined?

Curtis Sittenfeld, the 1992 winner of Seventeen magazine’s fictional writer contest, meticulously depicts the illusionary world of Ault Academy in her debut novel, Prep. Sittenfeld, a part-time English teacher in Washington, D.C., has her finger on the pulse of the emotion, psyche and struggles of high school students, especially those in prep school. Her descriptive style eases the reader into Prep’s fictional world while unearthing nostalgic memories.

Arriving at Ault on scholarship, Lee wishes for friends, a boyfriend and more money than her classmates have – or at least the things it buys. Unfortunately, her insecurities are her worst enemy in achieving these "ideals." Instead of creating the popular, outgoing personality she admires, Lee’s excessively self-conscious existence turns her into the Ault wallflower. She obsesses anxiously about the events of her life and, as a result, misses opportunities to change her Ault experience. Then one day, four years of bottled-up perceptions and emotions explode over the front page of The New York Times. As she wrestles with her new infamy on the small campus, Lee finally begins to separate reality from perception.

In many ways, Prep is the ultimate diary of lessons we wish we’d known before entering high school. As any youth begins to venture out from their parent’s world and develop his or her own identity, mistakes are made and lessons learned – usually the hard way. Even the most insightful person has to learn the tough lessons about heartbreak, embarrassment, betrayal or remorse.

Romans 15:4 reminds us that "for everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope." Prep is both the reminder of the past and the hope offered to those struggling through adolescence. As Lee flashes back to events of high school, her words are nuggets of wisdom offered to herself at age 13. Even when the world seemed against her, there always was hope it would get better.

In the midst of it all is abounding grace. Time after time, Lee encounters God’s grace through the actions and comments of others, including her roommate and the most unexpected people along the way. It is through hope and grace that Lee learns, grows and survives high school.

"You can go through life disengaged," Lee’s English teacher, Ms. Moray, once told her. "You can be a person who always says no, who’s not interested, not enthusiastic, who’s too cool to be part of things. Or, at some point, you can say yes. You can develop interests, take a stand, reach out to people." Prep is Lee’s quest to develop her own identity and reminds us that learning how to grow up is just as important as our academic education along the way.

The Rev. Dee Dee Azhikakath is a young adult and the associate minister for St. Mark's United Methodist Church in Tucson, Ariz.

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