Ok so this isn’t a review as such, more an exploration of feelings brought up by reading a book. I’m probably going to spoiler muchly, so if you haven’t read Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld and were planning on doing so, go away and read in and come back to me later. I’m also giving a TW as I talk about depression, anxiety and suicide at the end.
I’ve been reading some really, really heavy books recently, about death and violence and abuse and race hate and it was starting to do my head in a bit. Because I read at least for a couple of hours every day, often more, and because I involve myself so much in what I’m reading, if I’m having a bit of a stressy time of it anyway what I’m reading tends to seep into my subconscious and I get even more stressed and unhappy. The one time I tried to give up smoking and was also living in a mate’s spare room for three months with my possessions scattered around Leeds, for example, I was also read the third book of A Song of Ice and Fire, which looking back was a stupid thing to have done because of how horrible that book really is in terms of the shere amount of violence that goes on.
So yeah, reading a book about the Spanish Inquisition, then a book about a Nazi at the start of term was probably not my best idea. I tried to lighten things up with a bit of YA and read Debutants by Cora Harrison, whose writing is flitty and silly and inconsequential but fun, but that only took me like a day. Then I read Union Street by Pat Barker, because we got it in for work and it’s her first novel so I felt like I should but honestly it was just Roddy Doyle meets Catherine Cookson, written in the style of Maeve Binchey and just utterly depressed me. So then I read Katherine McMahon, who I saw at the Morley Lit Fest and loved,’s book The Crimson Room, thinking, yeah, Right On first woman lawyer in the 1920s, oh yeah this’ll sort me out, but it didn’t because it was overlong and the woman lawyer in question was a bit rubbish.
So then I decided to read Prep. I loved American Wife, thought it was a well written book that really gripped me. I’d heard mixed reports on this one but thought fuck it, it’s set in a high school, it’ll be ace, bit of teen angst, I’m surrounded by teen angst, this will help me relate to the teen angst.
And is HASN’T. Instead it has made me ANGRY and FULL OF FEELS.
Lee Fiora goes to boarding school because she is a snob who wants to live in a big house and not belong to her ordinary (ORDINARY??? HER DAD MANAGES AN ENTIRE SHOP FFS. That ISN’T ordinary) loving family (except they aren’t that loving and her dad is a prick. But more of that later). She falls in love with the fairy tale idea of being surrounded by rich beautiful people and, excelling academically, she gets in to Ault on a scholarship.
This book tells the story of her four years at Ault, illustrated by a little incident from each term. She writes in from the perspective of herself grown, but in exactly the way a teenage girl thinks and acts. This is genius on Sittenfeld’s part because she gets the mindset of teenage exactly right-little tiny things that happen that you wouldn’t think twice about as a grown up are blown up so much in your teenage brain. When I think about my teenage years it is in the same episodic way, I remember incidents rather than how they fitted together as a whole. Part of this, I think, is self-preservation; if I actually thought about how I got into situations I would have to hold myself accountable for the results of being in them. Part of this is also because being a teenager for me was quite a while ago now, which is sad but there you go.
The book doesn’t really have a plot, as such, it is literally just a series of Stuff That Happened, although it is centred around Lee’s relationship with others, her crush on a rich boy called Cross, and her attempts at friendships with other students.
Lee is obviously very unhappy and depressed and also massively massively anxious. I have anxiety disorder so I know what she is going through and the way she describes over thinking every last little detail of how she said hello to someone that morning and what that meant to her, that again is genius writing because that is exactly how it is. Panics start with niggles of doubt that build and build but in Lee’s case never seem to have the release of an attack. Living with anxiety is exhausting because you are always, always on guard and stopping yourself from over thinking is something that I’ve been working on and I know is hard. Reading this book was like being in the inside of my own head, but if that head belonged to another person. I could read this and think objectively ‘youre being ridiculous and making your own life harder’, but then because I know that’s not how anxiety works I ended up feeling so incredibly sorry for her.
What this book made me more than anything else, though, is angry. I’m not sure when this book is set but I’m guessing early 90s. Was mental health awareness that bad that no one could see what Lee, a TEENAGE GIRL, was going through? Was this, like, normal back then? When I was at school I had a councillor and a very very sympathetic head of year and friends with mental health issues that received buckets of help and support, and I didn’t exactly go to a modern hip city academy, I went to a small town comprehensive in the late 90s. I know it is a boarding school, and Lee doesn’t help herself in any way, but COME ON. She mentions frequently school councillors, psychiatrists after another girl attempts suicide, conversations with various teachers, and nobody noticed what was going on? No one talked about it even?
And her parents, I’m sorry but her parents are dicks. I get that they don’t understand her want to be rich and what she considers popular and acceptable, and I get that they let her go because they wanted her to be happy, but again they don’t notice. They believe at face value what their teenage daughter tells them and then blow up at her when she is finally, bravely, honest about what she is feeling.
Lee is failed throughout this book. She is failed by her school, by her parents and then finally by her peers. What worries me is that there are teenagers reading this book out there today going through the same hell and because they aren’t cutting themselves or setting fire to things or any of the obvious signs that something is wrong in their lives they think they are normal, that being that unhappy all the time is OK. It ISN’T. Panicking and anxiety is easily hidden-believe me I know I do it all the time, and it takes a hell of a lot of courage to come out and say ‘actually, my life sucks and I want that to stop’. But when you are in a culture where you are left to rot inside your own head because the adults around you are oblivious to your needs, well that is a culture that kills, and that needs to change.
Sorry that all got a bit ranty. Also, I realise this is fiction, but still, it made me have feels and is probably true to life for someone.