[Paleopsych] NYT: Although She Wrote What She Knew, She Says She Isn't What She Wrote
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Although She Wrote What She Knew, She Says She Isn't What She Wrote
NYT January 26, 2005
[Book World review beneath.]
By FELICIA R. LEE
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
"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
Still, there are those reviews. In a 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
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
"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.
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