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Coming-of-age story 'Prep' artfully mines boarding school drama

Prep, By Curtis Sittenfeld, Random House, 406 pp., $21.95

Very few people choose to revisit the hell that was high school -- unless it's vicariously through someone else's tale of humiliation, heartbreak, and crushes gone horribly wrong. And Curtis Sittenfeld's engrossing debut, ''Prep," transports us into the world of a self-conscious, awkward teenager from the Midwest attending boarding school in Massachusetts.

''Prep" 's Lee Fiora, a fish out of water from South Bend, Ind., comes to the elite Ault School by her own choosing. Her earthy, heartland parents are concerned about the distance, the expense, Ault's atmosphere of cloying wealth, but Lee is unmoved. This world of overprivileged kids with names like Aspeth, Horton, and Gates -- and those are girls -- is one that Lee seeks out as an opportunity to reinvent herself. One guesses that ''Prep" is somewhat autobiographical -- Sittenfeld is a graduate of the Groton School and is also from the Midwest. But judging from Sittenfeld's resume, littered with writing awards earned since she was a teenager, her accomplishments place her a few rungs above her protagonist.

Lee is nowhere near outstanding in this sea of rich and extraordinary kids. She is not especially brilliant -- once she gets to Ault she struggles academically while the relaxed, richer kids sail along effortlessly into good grades and Ivy League colleges. She is not poised and pretty, not as beautiful as Aspeth Montgomery, the ubiquitous most popular girl who Lee believes was the type the Rolling Stones wrote songs about. And she is certainly not athletic. What makes her an interesting character is her propensity to overanalyze herself, every situation, and every person with whom she comes into contact. She does so with such painful, self-flagellating and exhausting emotion that it sometimes leaves the reader exasperated and weary. You want to grab Lee by the collar and shout: ''None of this will matter in five years!" Her self-inflicted angst reminds us that being an adult does have its advantages. But it is Lee's angst, though sometimes overplayed by Sittenfeld, that keeps ''Prep" engaging.

Boarding school stereotypes abound: rich kids who buy clothes whose sole purpose is concealing and sneaking alcohol into their rooms or who, when asked to write about their favorite place to be alone, pick the family yacht; a clique called the bank boys, so named because their fathers work for New York banks; the beloved black guy who's athletic, affable, and unthreatening enough that the girls flirt with him yet don't seem to want to date him; the weird and somewhat resentful black girl; the quiet Asian girl who ends up surprising everyone. They're all part of some movie we've seen or some book we've read, but Sittenfeld manages to keep them entertaining and fresh.

Sittenfeld addresses a lot of issues, the most noteworthy being class. Lee's father owns a chain of mattress stores, a fact that horrifies her when she learns the occupations of her classmates' parents. Lee sees where the line is drawn between her and her classmates, and she is forced to confront her feelings of anger and inferiority. The social and economic hierarchy leaves her an outsider, not quite begging to get in, like her social climber roommate Dede, but waiting desperately to be recognized and picked. She observes the popular kids from a distance, wishing they'll notice her, talk to her, yet afraid to be anything more than invisible for fear that they will see her for what she thinks she really is, ''a nobody from Indiana." Even so, she comes off as a hypocritical snob. The same issues that make her self-conscious and insecure -- her scholarship, her unapologetic father who addresed another Ault father as ''sir" -- make her look at others as suspect. She assumes a Latina classmate is on scholarship only to find out that she is among the richest students in the school.

Even as Lee grows as a character and comes to see her own strengths and the shortcomings of some of the Ault students whom she worships, it is still frustrating to observe that she never seems to discover her worth. One of the most painful parts of the novel is watching her allow her crush, Cross Sugarman, a star athlete and prefect, to enter her bed, with no explanation and no questions asked, and begin a clandestine sexual relationship. The confrontation she has with him at the book's end has her saying out loud what she knew all along but was afraid to admit to herself.

The novel is written in the first person, and retrospectively, by a 20-something Lee. There is little regret as Lee relates this story from the vantage point of early adulthood -- and that's a little disappointing if the reader expected a neat and satisfying resolution to Lee's journey of self-discovery.

Sittenfeld's writing is wonderfully descriptive -- one gains a new appreciation for the natural beauty of Massachusetts -- as well as spare and clear-eyed; her talent is evident in the smooth pacing and well-developed characters. However, the novel is too long. Many parts could have been condensed. But overall, ''Prep" is a gorgeous and charming debut that belongs with the fine coming-of-age stories of our time.

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