[Paleopsych] NYT: Although She Wrote What She Knew, She Says She Isn't What She Wrote

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Wed Jan 26 18:09:38 UTC 2005

Although She Wrote What She Knew, She Says She Isn't What She Wrote
NYT January 26, 2005

[Book World review beneath.]


    W ASHINGTON - Lee Fiora is an awkward Midwestern scholarship student
    who is cowed by the academics, the superior blondes and the rich "bank
    boys" at her elite Massachusetts boarding school, not to mention
    tormented by a crush. Curtis Sittenfeld is a Midwesterner who attended
    an elite Massachusetts boarding school and was tormented by a crush.
    And therein lies a tale.

    Ms. Sittenfeld is real, a 29-year-old writer whose debut novel,
    "Prep," stars the fictional Ms. Fiora. While Ms. Sittenfeld merely
    followed the time-honored advice to "write what you know," the
    question nibbling at her amid the novel's sweet reviews and media
    attention has been: How much of the first-person book is Curtis and
    how much is Lee?

    Not that Ms. Sittenfeld or her publisher, Random House, really mind.
    The 406-page novel, was officially released on Jan. 18, and Random
    House has printed 24,000 more books, adding to the 16,000-copy first
    run. Lee Fiora, according to at least one review, could be the
    21st-century Holden Caulfield. While Ms. Sittenfeld used a recent
    interview here to talk about the novel and all the ways she is not
    Lee, her publisher's publicity machine is complicit in the tease.
    "Prep" press material includes Ms. Sittenfeld's Groton School class
    photograph, a shot of the cute boy who was her high school crush and
    her senior yearbook quote and list of activities.

    "In a way it's flattering that it seems so real," Ms. Sittenfeld said,
    adding that at Groton she was less an outsider than is Lee at the
    fictional Ault School, with more friends and more of an identity
    through writing. "But is it so easy to believe that I have no
    imagination and I can't invent dialogue or those scenarios?"

    Indeed, she spent three years writing what she calls a "very plotted"
    book, with files and charts to keep track of the scenes and the
    characters, Ms. Sittenfeld said over salad at the Cafe Deluxe, near
    St. Albans School, a private boys school here, where she teaches
    English part-time.

    "I do think I was trying to entertain the reader more than I was
    trying to purge myself," she said, raising her voice at the end of
    declarative sentences. "I don't see 'Prep' as cathartic. It was hard
    work to write it. I almost think some people think I went home one
    night, I had a glass of wine, pulled out my yearbook and got lost in
    my musings."

    Still, there are those reviews. In a [1]recent New York Times Book
    Review, Elissa Schappell wrote, "Sittenfeld's dialogue is so
    convincing that one wonders if she didn't wear a wire under her hockey
    kilt."The reviewer for The New York Observer even had advice for Lee,
    who he worried had succumbed to the same snobbery she so painfully
    documents: "Keep the gimlet eye, kiddo, but lose the snobbery. With
    heart and talent like yours, it's beneath you."

    Ms. Sittenfeld said she was surprised by the intensity of interest in
    the conflation of character and author, despite some similarities.
    After all, Lee is from South Bend, Ind., and Ms. Sittenfeld is from
    Cincinnati. They both have unisex names (she is officially the seventh
    Elizabeth Curtis Sittenfeld). Lee falters academically, and Ms.
    Sittenfeld struggled with Latin, French, math and science.

    But her own father (he is an investment adviser, Lee's is in the
    mattress business) asked if - like Lee - she ever cheated in high
    school. And he asked if a scene where Lee's dad slaps her is based on
    anything real. ("He was asking about his own life!" Ms. Sittenfeld
    said. )

    Her older sister pulled her aside and asked if she went to Groton on

    No, no and no. Ault is not Groton, and few of the characters are
    composites or based on real people, she said. And for the record, her
    own high school crush "was nothing like Lee's relationship."

    As for Groton, she said: "I'm sure there are people who are not
    pleased by the book. But the feedback I get is positive - people say
    'we're so pleased for you.' The Groton Quarterly did a review that was
    incredibly nice."

    "It just seemed the subject matter was alive," Ms. Sittenfeld said of
    her decision to plumb life at an elite boarding school.

    "High school is very intense for everyone," she continued. "But at a
    boarding school, because you're there 24 hours a day, everything gets
    magnified." "It's a strange, distinct subculture," she said. "My
    boarding school experience was the only thing I had strong enough
    feelings to write about for hundreds and hundreds of pages. I can
    still smell the formaldehyde of the fetal pigs in biology."

    "I've been hearing from other boarding school graduates," she
    continued. "They say: 'I went to Exeter, did you do research at
    Exeter? Or Deerfield?'"

    Even with all the heady attention Ms. Sittenfeld seems not to have
    strayed too far into the stratosphere. At lunch, she blushed easily
    and apologized for the novel's graphic sex, which she said her parents
    thought was a bit too much. "I think the book is between PG-13 and R,"
    she said earnestly, and therefore not for her students.

    "They're ninth graders and they're not fascinated by my life and they
    shouldn't be," Ms. Sittenfeld said after lunch, showing a visitor
    around the St. Albans campus. "They ask me questions like 'Does it
    have foreshadowing? Does it have symbolism?' One boy said, 'Is it
    about the loss of innocence?' "

    It is "weird," she said, that teaching at St. Albans puts her back in
    a prep school. "I see it as coincidental that I am here, which might
    sound delusional," she said. She was the writer in residence at the
    school in 2002-3.

    At one point, Ms. Sittenfeld showed off a grosgrain ribbon belt in
    shades of green and pink, exactly the same one embossed on the cover
    jacket of "Prep" and handed out at her readings. "I wonder if they
    would have thought of handing out yarmulkes for Philip Roth's new
    novel?" Ms. Sittenfeld asked with a smile.

    Speaking of writers, she said she was not a terribly disciplined one,
    but chained herself to her desk for "Prep." She has been writing since
    childhood. Like Sylvia Plath (to whom Ms. Sittenfeld compares herself
    in a recent article in The New York Observer) she won Seventeen
    magazine's annual fiction contest. That was in the summer of '92,
    before senior year. The story's protagonist was Leah Tappenreich and
    it was set - surprise - in a prep school.

    "Prep" is very much a novel about class. All in all, Ms. Sittenfeld
    comes from a more privileged family background than Lee. Ms.
    Sittenfeld's mother teaches art history at a private school, where she
    is also a middle-school librarian. All four Sittenfeld children went
    to private school, although only Ms. Sittenfeld attended boarding

    After Groton, Ms. Sittenfeld went to Vassar but transferred to
    Stanford because of "the slight dearth of cute boys" at Vassar. Then
    came the writing program at the University of Iowa, where she was
    enrolled in the master's program.

    The world probably has not heard the last of old Lee Fiora, who by the
    end of the fictional memoir has finished college, "I definitely have
    an idea for a sequel," Ms. Sittenfeld said. "But I definitely feel
    prep-schooled out right now."

Book World: School Ties

    Reviewed by Caitlin Macy
    Sunday, January 23, 2005; Page BW07

    By Curtis Sittenfeld
    Random House. 406 pp. $21.95

    In a memorable passage near the opening of Brideshead Revisited,
    Evelyn Waugh's narrator, Charles Ryder, reflects on how "easy" it is,
    "retrospectively, to endow one's youth with a false precocity or false
    innocence." The same double-edged temptation often derails first-time
    novelists, who end up enervating the protagonist-version of themselves
    with one or the other pretension. Not, however, Curtis Sittenfeld,
    whose gripping debut effort, Prep, gives us a more accurate picture of
    adolescence as an unlovely mix of utter cluelessness, extreme
    sensitivity and untempered drives.

    Set at a (remarkably thinly) veiled Groton School, which Sittenfeld
    has for some reason here given a stumbling-block of a name -- Ault --
    Prep tells the story of Lee Fiora, a middle-class Midwesterner who,
    prompted by an idle comment of her father's about rich people sending
    their sons to boarding school, packs herself off to one of the most
    famous. White, unathletic, trust fund-less, possessed of no special
    qualification that might serve to legitimize her existence in Ault's
    breathtakingly rarefied milieu, Lee manages, just barely, to make a
    single friend by the end of her freshman year. The next three years of
    misery in paradise are hardly any better, as our heroine sits out
    soccer games and school dances and long weekends in her dorm room, all
    the while tormented by a killer crush on one Cross Sugarman, the
    embodiment of Ault-typical privilege and ease.

    Despite her day-to-day agony at Ault, the intensity of Lee's
    experience gives it from the outset its own throbbing, undeniable
    legitimacy. Effectively captured by Sittenfeld in a series of
    representative incidents -- parents' weekend, a school-wide game of
    "Assassin," a suicide attempt by a former roommate -- Lee's four years
    at the school she later recalls as "often unhappy . . . and yet my
    unhappiness was so alert and expectant; really, it was, in its energy,
    not that different from happiness." In a nice move that makes for
    pleasurable reading, Sittenfeld peoples Prep not only with Lee and her
    immediate circle of acquaintances but with the dozens of students,
    teachers and even dining-hall workers who make up boarding-school life
    and in some ways shape Lee's experience. We meet senior prefects Gates
    Medkowski and Henry Thorpe; Darden Pittard, "our class's cool black
    guy"; and Tullis Haskell, the guy who plays (naturally) James Taylor's
    "Fire and Rain" on guitar in the winter talent show. But the novel
    never slows, due to Sittenfeld's perfect pacing and almost reportorial
    knack for describing what it's like -- psychologically, logistically
    -- to be 15. Recounting a chance encounter with Cross Sugarman that
    leads to their seeing a film together, Lee extrapolates: "For the
    whole movie, I had that sense of heightened awareness that is like
    discomfort but is not discomfort exactly -- a tiring, enjoyable
    vigilance. I did not get a grasp on the movie's plot, or the names of
    any of the characters. Then it was over and the lights came on. . . .
    Maybe this was the place Cross and I would part ways, I thought. And
    maybe we wouldn't even say good-bye, now that he was with his friends
    again; maybe I was just supposed to know."

    Occasionally, Sittenfeld's eye for detail is a bit too literal: Anyone
    with more than a passing familiarity with Groton may endure a squirmy
    moment or two when particulars such as the school's setting on "the
    Circle," the green jacket worn to announce a surprise holiday or the
    newspaper gossip column, "Low Notes," are transplanted. Not to mention
    -- full disclosure -- having a character who is a dead ringer for your
    husband turn up on page 72.

    It seems likely that Lee Fiora will be compared to Holden Caulfield,
    and it is high time someone wrote the girl's boarding-school novel.
    But Lee is no disaffected Salingeresque anti-hero coolly outing
    phonies. Despite the novel's preppy setting (and cringe-worthy title
    -- an odd misstep), Sittenfeld's narrator, in her naked ambition, her
    unapologetic desire and moral ambivalence, has much more in common
    with, say, Neil Klugman of Goodbye, Columbus. This is a girl who
    lusts, cheats, trades up a loser friend for a better one and is
    embarrassed to be caught talking to a townie -- all, basically, to
    position herself for a chance to hook up with Cross Sugarman.

    And this is the great risk that Sittenfeld takes: It's comparatively
    easy to write a novel about a young man trying to be socially
    acceptable enough to get into a girl's pants. The neurotically
    self-aware, unrequited (or briefly requited) male lover has been a
    stock character since the 12th century. To put a teenage girl in the
    same position is a much bigger gamble because, even now, it defies our

    One of the most poignant moments in Prep comes when Sittenfeld's
    narrator articulates the other problem with being a girl who is not
    one of the rich beauties tying knots in their hair with pencils (or
    even an artsy, depressive type like Esther Greenwood of Plath's The
    Bell Jar) but a smart, self-conscious girl with ordinary looks and a
    sense of humor: It isn't, after all, simply that one wants to date the
    boys. As Lee explains, "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
    [expletive] sure of my place in the world." It's this kind of
    insightful, unexpectedly candid observation that lends a dignity to
    Lee's time at Ault, enabling her in some way to transcend its social
    hierarchies -- not that she would ever want to. o

    Caitlin Macy is the author of the novel "The Fundamentals of Play" and
    is at work on a collection of short stories.

More information about the paleopsych mailing list