Thursday, May 25, 2006


I'm busy writing a book review (ok, not right this minute) this week, so I'm feeling even more scattered than usual. The thing is, it's a really really long book: two volumes, 100+ articles, that sort of thing. So it's going slowly.

In the meantime I did read two new(ish) books last week, the two by Curtis Sittenfeld. And I am of two (at least) minds about them. I read Prep first. It's good. She really captures the texture of boarding school life, for one thing, or at least certain aspects of it. While her novel is set in the late 80s or early 90s, I believe, it resonated with my mid-70s experience. Sittenfeld is an unobtrusively graceful writer, too. I didn't find myself noticing the writing so much as noticing that I wasn't noticing it, if that makes sense. And she captures that angsty self-absorption of a certain kind of teenage girl in a way that made me cringe, having been something of that sort of a teenage girl myself.

But then I kept wondering, so what? Why do I care? The retrospective quality of the narrative helped; periodically the narrator, Lee, reminds us that she did get through this experience and move on, growing up to be a much better person than she was in high school. But I still kept feeling as if something were missing, some edge of social satire--she seemed too passive, too accepting of the judgements of, let's face it, other teenagers.

And here's where I can't tell if my response is judging the character--who is, clearly, flawed, but in recognizable ways--or the novel, which depicts that character's struggles with, I'm afraid, too little distance or judgement. I want other people to read the novel and discuss it with me so I can better articulate my sense--she got something right, but is it the right kind of something?

The second novel, The Man of My Dreams, compounds the problem. The narrator is very like Lee, though older: insecure, anxious, bright but unself-confident, and, like Lee, overinvested in the eponymous character. A character who, of course, doesn't exist. In both novels, the young woman needs to discover that a man will not complete her. Well, duh. But of course, this is something that most young women need to learn, and the learning process is not at all pretty or flattering. I'm just...not sure I want to read about it any more.

The bottom line is, I found Laurie Halse Anderson's YA novel, Speak, to be a far more compelling depiction of the texture of high school life than I found Prep*, and if I want to read about the humbling of a misguided heroine, I think I'd rather reread Jane Austen than Sittenfeld.

*yes, I do know that these are very different books doing very different things. And that comparisons are odious.


Becca said...

That's how my sister felt about Prep: OK, it's good and all, but why should I care? (Or really, she didn't care.) I was just totally compelled by the quality of the writing and the accuracy of the depiction of...teen solipsism, teen sex, etc.

expatmama said...

I just re-read one of my favorite YA books: The First Few Friends, by Marilyn Singer. It's funny, because there is a lot of casual drug use and sex in the book, but it's not jaded and cynical. Of course, it was set in 1968, and a lot of things have changed since then...

I think I'll see if I can get a copy of Prep from the library on my visit to the States, just to see.