Prep Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Prep often mimics the memoir form, borrowing from the conventions of the nonfiction genre. What aspects of the novel are reminiscent of memoir, and what effect do these choices have on the book as a whole?

    Prep is narrated in the first person. Many works of fiction have first-person narrators, but Prep stands out because its narrator maintains some distance from the events of the novel. Lee, rather than narrating while immersed in her high-school experiences, speaks from several years or even decades in the future. As a narrator, Lee constantly contextualizes her high school years within the trajectory of her life as a whole, in the manner of autobiography. Furthermore, Sittenfeld's attention to maintaining realism is total: details such as school rules and clothing trends are carefully featured, giving the impression that the novel contains a true story. Collectively, these memoir-like effects emphasize the relationship between the book's fictional, personal plotline, and its themes of class, race, and otherwise-relevant real-world issues. Since the novel is so consistently preoccupied with important events, and since its setting is so painstakingly portrayed, its fictional events feel almost indistinguishable from its realistic setting.

  2. 2

    Lee is often excluded at Ault because of her family's social class, but other students feel like outsiders for other reasons. Where do we see examples of such exclusion, and how does it differ from Lee's?

    Lee tends to feel a certain closeness or solidarity with nonwhite students at Ault, such as Little, Conchita, or Rufina. In many ways, they deal with similar difficulties at school: Ault caters to and is populated by the children of wealthy, white East Coast families, but Lee, a middle-class Midwesterner, is a foreigner in this milieu. One difference, as she notes, is that she is somewhat able to "disguise" herself among her classmates. While her actions and knowledge show her to be an outsider, her appearance generally does not. This does not hold true for Little, as a black student, for Sin-Jun, as an international student who does not speak English as her first language, or for Dede, whose name and appearance clue other students in to her Jewishness. Lee sometimes envies these external signs of difference, feeling that they take pressure off of those who wear them, but she also is able to relax because of the anonymity her whiteness gains her. As Darden Pittard explains to her later, black students must act vigilantly at all times in this largely white institution, since any misstep might make others see them as dangerous or troublesome. Later in the book, Lee encounters another determinant of insider status: sexual orientation. When she discovers that Sin-Jun is gay, Lee reacts with disbelief, since homosexuality is so far outside of her school's vision of normalcy. As a matter of fact, Sin-Jun appears to keep her sexuality a secret from everyone except for Lee until after high school, perhaps because Ault's culture is so consistently heteronormative.

  3. 3

    Discuss the significance of the character Dave Bardo. How does his relationship with Lee help advance both Prep's plot and Lee's characterization?

    Lee usually does her best to keep her home life separate from her school life, opting not to tell her Ault friends much about her small-town roots and to keep events at school largely veiled from her parents. Dave Bardo has the potential to synthesize these forcibly separated areas of her existence. He comes from a working-class background much like her own, but is from the East Coast and knows Ault intimately. Lee finds this comforting and refreshing, and she finds his personality and looks attractive, but she also finds that possibly synthesis threatening. Ultimately, Lee opts to reject Dave, since she is afraid of what may result when her hidden, working-class self emerges at Ault. As she explains to the reader, a truly wealthy and popular Ault student like Aspeth Montgomery might be able to 'ironically' date a member of the school's kitchen staff: the risk for Lee lies in her own similarity to Dave, and in the possibility that she will become permanently associated with him. At the same time, while Dave is clearly insulted by Lee's rejection, her choice is not solely grounded in fear of what others will think or desire to fit in. When she meets Dave, he is significantly older than her, and she has no sexual or romantic experience. Her inability to communicate or flirt with him stems in part from shyness and cluelessness. As a result, she wonders whether Dave provided her with necessary practice and wisdom for her later relationship with Cross. However, Lee herself questions this line of thinking, wondering whether, by reducing Dave's significance to that of a mere lesson, she is participating in the objectification and scorn for working people that so many of her classmates display.

  4. 4

    How does Curtis Sittenfeld use names for characterization and world-building in Prep? Provide examples.

    The protagonist of Prep comes from a world of straightforward, 'normal' names: Lee's siblings are named Joseph and Tim. At Ault, she encounters a dizzying array of new names. Lee rarely comments on these unusual names, but Curtis Sittenfeld uses them both as subtle humor and for symbolic purposes, revealing characters' motives and backgrounds.

    True, some of Lee's classmates' names merely hint at their ethnic or linguistic backgrounds. Conchita Maxwell's mother is Mexican, while her father is a white CEO, and her name reveals the blended background of which she is so proud. Martha Porter is from an unshowy but distinguished New England family of the sort Lee's father refers to as "WASPs." Sin-Jun Kim comes from Korea. However, these simple names are exceptions: characters like Aspeth Montgomery and Tullis Haskell have gender-neutral first names that vaguely resemble last names. Their distinct first names simultaneously reflect an expectation of successful individuality and a history of distinguished family, since many of their first names sound more like typical last names. These characters' mothers, though, have frivolous-sounding names like "Fifi" or "Yum," possibly hinting at the changing expectations for elite women: while older women of high status were expected to live lives of leisure, their daughters face expectations to balance femininity with traditionally male roles in business and sports and thus receive less feminine-sounding names. Finally, some characters names tell a story or even function as winking jokes: Cross Sugarman's explicitly Christian first name sits uneasily beside his Jewish surname, reflecting his attempts to hide his heritage, while Gates Medkowski's first name hints at her role as both a welcoming presence and a gatekeeper in the Ault community.

  5. 5

    Describe Lee's relationship with her two roommates during her freshman year. How is she similar to them and how is she different? How does her relationship with each girl evolve over the years?

    Lee, Sin-Jun, and Dede have very little in common on the surface. However, all three are outsiders at Ault, in very different ways. Lee is a scholarship student who feels confused and excluded from the rarified world of extreme wealth she finds at boarding school. Dede is wealthy, but she lacks the easy entitlement that Ault's more popular students have, and she is unable to hide her Jewish roots. Sin-Jun is by far the biggest outsider at first glance—wealthy though she is, she comes from a foreign nation and is not a native English speaker. Furthermore, as Lee learns later, she is gay. At first, each girl views the others' outsider status suspiciously, rather than feeling a sense of solidarity. Lee is irritated by Dede's social climbing and desperation for popularity. Dede suspects Sin-Jun of stealing from her, reasoning that she may not understand American social norms. Sin-Jun remains intensely private and almost never shares personal information with her roommates. As they move through the grades of Ault, though, Lee gains more respect for these two classmates. Sin-Jun's suicide attempt forces Lee to confront the complexity and intensity of her friend's emotional life, and sharing this intense experience breaks down the barriers between these two highly private characters. Lee and Dede, meanwhile, are both determined to hide their backgrounds and insecurities from their classmates. Lee attempts to do so by quietly blending in, Dede by loudly standing out, but both are equally unwilling to share their true feelings. With one another, though, they each feel freed to act bluntly and speak their minds, recognizing their deeper similarities. Lee insults Dede openly and Dede insults Lee in return; at other times, Dede candidly asks Lee about her emotional life, unafraid of rudeness. After they graduate and are freed from the constraints of Ault's setting, Lee is better able to appreciate Sin-Jun's straightforwardness and Dede's sense of humor.