Sleepless in Harrisburg

February 25, 2008

It wasn’t bad to spend a Saturday night by myself. Really, it was all a matter of expectations, . . . and I knew not to expect much. . . . I had at times believed that if my sadness were intense enough, it would magnetically draw a handsome boy to my room to comfort me, and that had served as an incentive, when alone, to lie around and weep.
                        — Curtis Sittenfeld, b. 1975, American fiction writer
                            from her debut novel, Prep

As I remarked yesterday, I started reading Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel Prep in January of 2006. The passage above can be found on page 124 of the novel, when Lee, the narrator/protagonist, is in her second year (tenth grade) at the elite New England boarding school she is able to attend because of a scholarship. I encountered the passage on January 23. On January 26 I noted that I was on page 172 and feeling bogged down. Although I agreed with writer Thisbe Nissen that the book “ensconces the reader deep in . .. the churning mind of Lee Fiora, capturing every vicissitude of her life,” I couldn’t agree with “bestselling author” Jill Davis, who said the book had “an appealing sense of melancholy.” Both of those quotations come from blurbs (brief statements of enthusiasm solicited for publicity purposes) on the back cover of the book.

Nissen meant for her statement to be a positive reflection on the book. I found it tedious to be so ensconced in Lee Fiora’s churning mind, and on page 229, after a long scene in which a roommate’s suicide attempt interrupts Lee’s efforts to secure a seat at assembly near the boy she has a crush on, I started using the book as a lifter for my laptop and never went back to it.

Until Saturday night.

After the Fox News story about the brouhaha that this book caused when it was selected by a sixth-grader from her school library in Yorba Linda, I had to look up the “several passages in it [that] border on the pornographic.” They weren’t hard to find, since reporter Jonathan Hunt, in the video version of his story, highlights what he describes as “one of the tamer passages in the book” and displays the page number.

I made a mug of orange and spice herbal tea, drew the volume out from under my laptop, and installed myself on the sofa in my study. I skimmed the parts of the book I had read, renewing my acquaintance with the self-absorbed and socially tenuous Lee Fiora. The narration is in the voice of the twenty-four-year-old Lee looking back only six years. That’s not much distance, but it’s the age the author, who denies this is thinly-veiled autobiography, was when she wrote the first draft.

The section that’s causing the uproar begins on page 285, when Cross Sugarman, the boy Lee adores, visits her in her room at the beginning of their senior year and begins a secret sexual relationship with her. Cross never acknowledges her to others as his girlfriend and they never appear on campus as a couple. The sexual encounters continue on a regular basis until just after spring break (p. 355), when he visits her for the last time and then, without a word of farewell or explanation, takes up with another girl. Lee has to learn about this from observing them together and reading about them in the school newspaper’s gossip column.

Those seventy pages are not completely filled with graphic descriptions of the acts Lee and Cross perform together. Some are reported in specific detail (“He used two fingers, and I bucked against his hand, as if I were trying to help him find something inside me. Everything was damp and hot.”) while others are merely referred to. Their first episode of oral sex does cover two pages, but most of it is the inexperienced Lee’s narration of her constant feeling of uncertainty and incompetence during the encounter and her trying to remember what she knows about how to proceed from having read guides in magazines like Cosmopolitan. When he compliments her on her performance, she notes, “I felt prouder than if I’d gotten an A on a math test. Was it possible that I had a particular gift? . . . the fact that I didn’t find the act particularly enjoyable [was] irrelevant.”

The passages are certainly explicit, and unsuitable for a sixth grader. But they aren’t, in my opinion, pornographic. Neither, however, are they erotic or lyrical. They’re just sad and disheartening because they portray a young woman so lost to herself and her own worth that she lets herself be used by a boy she loves, even though this reader couldn’t find anything particularly likeable about him. He’s just good looking, is all. She gives herself away, letting Cross have what he wants in exchange for his limited attention. She knows she’s being used, she knows that it will end badly, but she gives herself to him anyway. 

I put the book down two years ago because I found the protagonist hopelessly self-absorbed and self-hating, and the sense of melancholy that pervades the book not appealing but oppressive. Finishing it left me almost unbearably sad for this young woman who at the end says, “I was often unhappy at [school], and yet my unhappiness was so alert and expectant; really, it was, in its energy, not that different from happiness.”

I have been as unhappy and as lost as Lee. In fact, in my journal, when I noted that the character was so stuck, so changeless, so bogged down in her own unhappiness that I could not read any more, I wrote “like I was.” And maybe that’s why I finally did sit around and weep for her when I finished the book. I was weeping for myself. I spent most of my early twenties wondering why I didn’t have a solid and life-affirming partnership with someone whose goal was a mutually-supportive journey to become our best selves. It has been a great grace in my life that I never fell victim to anyone quite as callous as Cross. I knew some, of course, but I never fell victim to any of them, at least not for long. And at the lowest point in my life, January of 1975, I had the courage to turn my back on one individual who sent out danger signals from the beginning, and who would some fifteen years later murder his new wife.

Sittenfeld’s second novel, out this year, is called The Man of My Dreams. Same story, different milieu (public school), with a contrived unhappy ending so it won’t be labeled “chick lit.” Its reviews have been more mixed than were the initial reviews for Prep. Sittenfeld got a two-book deal after the success of Prep, so there will be another book to come. My guess is it will be about the same kind of character gone to college or the work force with the same quest. I won’t be recommending any of them to the beautiful young women whose futures I care about. 

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