It is that time of year again, the time of year when I gravitate towards book that punch me in the gut. Either because the character is so palpable I feel like I know them intimately (A Complicated Kindness), or because the book introduces me to so many new and beautiful ideas I want to spend more time than I have sifting through them, examining them (The Dispossessed). And then there are the books that are so close to my own experience I feel exposed somehow, naked in front of the author. Among Others was one book like that. But the part of me that felt exposed was the lonely, reading me, an aspect of myself that I have long embraced.
Prep by Curtis Sittenfield is a different story. Told from the perspective of Lee Fiora, a young girl who gets a scholarship to a fancy boarding school, this book hurled me into the murkiest, most devastating waters of my own adolescence. No- I never got a scholarship, or ended up at a fancy boarding school, though the high school I went to for the last couple of years of my secondary education was quite a bit like Beverley HIlls 9021, but the friendly Canadian version.
It is Lee’s complete lack of self-confidence. Actually, it is deeper than lack of self-confidence, lower even, to nigh self-annihilation.
Actually, even writing this hurts. I never realized it until I recognized it in Lee’s character, but I spent my whole teenage years just assuming that I was not worth knowing. Therefore, why would people want to hang out with me? Why would anybody like me? I best not foist myself on people- that would be unkind. Better to leave them alone. Stay in my little corner. Never ever put myself out there.
Like Lee in the book, I had a family that loved me (loves me still I am pretty sure but you can’t be really sure of anything, can you?) I had everything I needed- lived a comfortable middle-class existence in a beautiful little town. No, all my problems as a teenager were completely self-inflicted. I don’t know what happened to me. I don’t know if something happens in the brains of certain teenage girls, some sort of chemical imbalance that makes them think they are not worth the space they take up in the world. I know it is not every girl- my sisters most definitely had no problem taking up space. Most sane people don’t even question it.
So encountering a character who never sits at a table of her peers because she assumes they don’t want to talk to her, or if someone does talk to her, say like the cute boy she has been crushing on since the beginning of time, it must be out of pity. (This scenario leads to one of the most devastating parts of the book. I’m not going to tell you. You have to read it for yourself.)
I made a lot of mistakes in my life. And I am realizing now that a lot of the ones I made during my adolescent and young adult life stem from these terrible, self-hating assumptions. Regrets for not having participated in the world around me as much as I could have, or wanted to. Regrets with people I loved and couldn’t see how they could love me back and consequently making some devastatingly stupid mistakes.
I wish I could say that as an adult it is better, that like the case of adolescent acne, it has cleared away. Well, yes and no. Every time I am in a social gathering, my instinct is to not talk to anybody. Whatever I do, I shouldn’t foist my presence on other people. I must wait for people to come talk to me. But when they do, I always wonder if it is out of pity.
That is my first instinct. Luckily it is as faded as my acne scars, palpably there but easy to ignore.
As for the book itself, it is worth reading. Lee Fiora is up there with Nomi Nickel from A Complicated Kindness, Baby from Lullabies for Little Criminals and yes, even my first love, that ubiquitous comparison, Mr. Holden Caulfield. She is funny, smart, and so tragically flawed I wanted to simultaneously take her in my arms and shake some sense into her. Now that I think about it, that was probably how my mom felt…