By Curtis Sittenfeld

went away without a book to read and plucked this off the shelf where i was staying. i finished it in less than 24 hours and it left little impression on me. i have the distinct feeling that if i were to fail to write this review promptly, i would forget what i thought altogether.

having attended public school for the length of my primary education, i can’t speak to whether this portrayal of a private boarding school back east really captures what it is like to attend one, but i can say this with utter surety; i was most definitely at one point a teenage girl, and i do not feel this novel in any way even captures a glimpse of what it was like to have been one.

i was actually turned off from the opening line, which is trite to the point of pain;

I think that everything, or at least the part of everything that happened to me, started with the roman architecture mixup

 

this novel is a first-person account given by one Lee Fiora the adult of her time at Ault, a boarding school outside Boston. while i am usually a fan of this first person voice,  the narrative in this case  seems self-indulgent without the concomitant indulgence. none of what happens to this character takes on any color, texture, or temperature. there is a strange sense of both being unable to see past the end of Lee’s nose, but there being nothing of consequence going on behind it.the fundamental premise is that Lee, a heretofore successful public-school student from a working-class family has managed to win a place and scholarship to a school that would otherwise be socially and financially far beyond her scope. once she arrives she is totally unprepared, academically, personally, and emotionally for the experience. while the plot lacks much in imaginative originality, handled properly it could still have been a rich vein through which to explore alienation.

however, this character displays a degree of ambivilence about her life and surroundings i found utterly disingenuous.  teenagers may feign this much detachment, but i have never known one that actually felt it. especially not when they are surrounded by so many people so fundamentally different from themselves, and completely without a social network of any strength.

what’s more, the way Lee interacts with her peers seems to fly in the face of expectations. she holds on to a strangely aloof demeanor, despite her professed loneliness. she regards all friendliness on the part of her fellow students with bewilderment. not a healthy skepticism, which would at least seem more reasonable, but rather a complete lack of comprehension about any gesture made toward her other than open hostility. what’s more, she seems to lack any real sense of herself in a way i also find somewhat difficult to understand. i may not have been the most self-aware person out there, but i certainly had a self-image, even if it wasn’t accurate or nearly complete. this character almost never mentions how she views herself; not the complicated question of her place at Ault or what things she has going for her, nor even the most mundane sense of how she looks or feels about her appearance in anything more than the most cursory way. i usually have at least some sense of the physical attributes of my main character, but in this case i barely have a sense of what her insides are like, let alone her outsides.

a disproportionate amount of time is spent remembering the first half of freshman year and the last half of senior year whereas the rest of Lee’s time at Ault seems to pass in a indistinct haze. what’s more, the promise of that oh-so-trite first line is never actually realized; nothing really happens to Lee. she goes to school, she makes a handful of friends, though only one of any real import, she performs with a remarkable lack of distinction academically and fails to create much of an impression of her time at Ault, or of Ault itself.

there are any number of leading comments that would seem like foreshadowing, except that the author follows up on none of them. any reference to her adult self is utterly self-contained and discrete. no real hints about Lee’s future are contained in these asides, but they are frequent enough to become somewhat pestiferous when details about her actual thoughts and feelings and impressions of Ault seem so sparsely populated and lacking any vibrancy.

the author’s description of Lee’s lone passionate preoccupation, one Cross Sugarman, also lacks a certain veracity. she experiences a fleeting and totally unconvincing infatuation with a girl in her freshman year and then becomes indistinctly obessed with Cross after a strangely tender, but wholly isolated encounter at the local mall. though her intensity of feeling for him seems genuine enough, her behavior as a lover defies logic. teenage girls are not well known for their self-control or for their willingness to accept being nothing but a sex object for a person who shows up at random in their dorm room one night after 3 years of having virtually no contact. perhaps the strangest part is that Cross himself seems willing to genuinely like Lee, but her own lack of sensitivity seem to undermine any possibility that she could sense or accept this on any level apart from being receptive to his sexual advances.  and just at the moment she might begin to want more from him than a fumbling encounter in the spare dorm room up the hall, he disappears. unaccountably she becomes suddenly but sporadically emotional enough to seek him out for the very first time, (the only action of hers in this entire scenario that resonates with any sense of truth) only to recoil when he is on the verge of telling her that he cares about her more than she seemed willing to let him.

all of this happens in tandem with a somewhat sudden plot development the subtext of which, very much in bright red letters was “this is meant to be the climax of the story, and it is DRAMATIC!” Lee is asked because of her status as a scholarship student to consent to an interview with a reporter from the NYT. the interview is conducted by a caricature of a latina reporter with a chip on her shoulder who through hard work and spunk made her own way through Harvard! this character has an agenda that is painfully transparent to everyone except Lee, who then says a variety of things which are then used in an article which humiliates her and Ault and everyone there.

or, at least, that’s what we are expected to believe. but her dramatic and embarrassing behavior results in a completely passionless reaction from almost everyone and has no discernible consequences other than that the people who already didn’t like her very much, now they like her somewhat less.

i found this novel dull, flat, and lacking in any emotional resonance or intellectual veracity.

boo.