Saturday, April 5, 2014

Book Drunk Confessions: Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

**Let the record show that I really haven't slept in about two nights, and this is probably slightly more like a blog I've accidentally drunk-dialed than anything of coherent thought**

I am incredibly poorly read. On all those meme lists of the hundreds of books everyone is supposed to read, I’ve usually only read about five percent of them, and of that five percent, ninety percent of that list are books I was forced to read under the duress of a grade.

I wish this wasn’t true. Part of me has always aspired to be an academic, or at least be respected as one. I mean, I do have an English degree and I was a high school literature teacher (which I realize that in light of the confession in the first paragraph of this blog, makes me seem like a hack), so I am at least good at existing on the periphery of academia even though I’ll likely not ever have residence there.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy reading—I absolutely do. And when I find a book I’m interested in, I binge read, forsaking food, sleep, and hygiene to free up  the time it requires to devour an entire story in one sitting. Since having children, this has become a problem since there are now little people who require me to not have my nose in a book so that I can provide for them the food, sleep, and hygiene they need to survive, so I’m even further behind on that list of must-reads than I was before babies.

Earlier this week I was in need of a book to kill the endless hours of free-reading time I was promised that jury duty would turn out to be (see my previous post), when it suddenly occurred to me that I don’t really own any books anymore. I’m an anti-clutter freak, and I get rid of everything all the time. If it’s possible, I think I get high from the sight of a cleared-off table or organized closet, and I’m equally excited by a book shelf with room to spare.  So all the books I used to have, unless they are attached with some nostalgia I can’t convince myself is ridiculous, have long since been donated to Goodwill and are likely sitting on some a shelf belonging to another struggling writer who just happens to have a little less self-control about hoarding than I do.

One exception that I was happy to discover while frantically pulling books from the basement’s inconspicuous and well-organized bookshelf was Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep. I remembered reading this book a few weeks before becoming pregnant for the first time (thus ending my leisure reading and beginning my study of the required textbook for moms-to-be, What to Expect When You’re Expecting), and feeling both blown away and paranoid by it. Typically, I’ve got a fairly accurate photographic memory. Occasionally though I’ve noticed that my mind will Photoshop  certain things I see so that I remember them better than they actually looked (like, for instance, my senior prom photo and James Van Der Beek’s hair in Season 1 of Dawson’s Creek). It would be extremely rare that I wouldn’t remember anything at all about something I’d spent any real amount of time looking at or studying (with the exception of all math passed the geometry level), especially—ESPECIALLY—a book.  This is why I never read things twice, I rarely watch movies more than once, and if I’m repeating a Netflix binge of a tv show, I need to wait at least a few years in-between ending the series and beginning it again (except for Sherlock; Benedict Cumberbatch is always the exception to every rule). But since because I’m not currently pregnant, I had nothing in the house to read except for Prep, I decided that I would pick it up again, just skip what was too familiar and reminisce the second time through about how much I enjoyed reading it the first time.

Because jury duty was not the vacation it appeared to be in the brochure, I didn’t much time to read while I was serving, but after an almost five hour bender ending at 3:00 this morning, I have now finished Prep for the second time… though it felt like the first.

I’m not sure if it’s because the book is not action-packed that I didn’t remember it (the book is 10% stuff that happens, 90% the neurosis of a high school girl interpreting the 10% that happened), but it was all new to me. Well, everything felt new except the last chapter because there’s something about Cross Sugarman and the surprising and very graphic sex scenes (I’ll admit it, I’m completely a prude when it comes to sex in books and I blush continuously and shift if my seat while reading them. I more at ease when the scene cuts away, or everything is implied, but that’s probably way more indicative of me as a person than anything else, which suddenly makes me feel naked) that tends to leave an impression eight years away from the story did not erase. That’s not a judgment about that section of writing—it was so painstakingly honest that it made me uncomfortable, and by that account was actually a very GOOD section. It’s just that I have different convictions about the inclusion of that topic in my own personal writing that… Well, I’m getting off topic, and I’m also blushing and shifting, so I digress….

This book was amazing, and it was even more amazing because it amazed me the second time through it. I’m not sure there has ever been a character I have related to more—including any of my own creation—than Lee Fiora, the narrator of Prep. This book is her coming-of-age story—a girl from small town (actually, MY small town) Indiana who gets a scholarship to attend a boarding school in New England for high school. Now, I didn’t go to boarding school (otherwise, I’d probably be better read), but apart from that difference, Lee’s perspectives, her neurosis, her constant over-analyzing of everyone and everything is exactly me—both at fifteen years old, and still, somewhat today.

There were moments when I was reading where Lee’s words were so familiar to me—her confessions living on the periphery of existence—that they felt almost extracted from me. Like my identity had been stolen and decoded tangibly into words and sentences and paragraphs and their subsequent emotions.

It was a bit jarring to discover this again. But it was also very freeing to feel like somewhere out there, there was an author who understood Lee well enough to write her (either because she identified with her herself or because she intimately observed someone like her). And strangely, this became comforting to me, because it meant that there was someone out there—though I’ll never meet her or know her personally—who understood me. Who had written me, fictionally. Lee is only complex because, I think, she chooses to be. And she’s not completely likable. I don’t even completely like her, and I feel like we’re the same person. But I think most people are able to recognize their flaws when they’re explained to them through stories. Like parables.

In light of all this, I’ve begun to wonder if anyone who has read Songs has felt this way—about any of the characters. Like, maybe there’s a Cosette out there or a Micah (they are the two more self-aware in the fictional cast of the book). I wonder who knows a Bronwyn or a Westley, and if the story has changed any relationships…


Those are my dreams as a writer. As much as I’d like to compose “the next big thing”, I would receive more satisfaction knowing that what I have written has meant something. That it’s bridged a connection between two unknown points on the planet. That somehow, my story has helped to solve for x, like Prep has done for me. 

2 comments:

  1. "And strangely, this became comforting to me, because it meant that there was someone out there—though I’ll never meet her or know her personally—who understood me. Who had written me, fictionally."
    I CAN'T BELIEVE! THIS IS LITERALLY WHAT I WROTE IN MY JOURNAL WHEN I FIRST READ THIS BOOK, WHEN I WAS 15! IN THIS WORDS! Now, 7 years later, literally nothing changed!

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    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment! It's nice to encounter someone else so affected by this story. No doubt we are kindred spirits!

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