Monday, April 23, 2007

All About School

Two of the novels that I have read recently concern themselves with teenagers growing up in institutions. In Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep that institution is Ault School, an elite private boarding school, and the teenager is Lee Fiora, a scholarship student who describes herself as ' a nobody from Indiana'. Elinor Lipman tells her novel, My Latest Grievance, through the eyes of the charmingly precocious Frederica Hatch whose parents teach and live at Dewing College, a small East Coast college.

While these are very different novels (more on that shortly) they are both to some extent concerned with the teenage experience. I think it's interesting that so many films, books and TV shows are about teenagers. While we can assume that some of these are produced with teenage audiences in mind, clearly their appeal extends beyond that market. Why do the rest of us want to watch the goings on of teenagers? As a devoted fan of the teen film, I've given this some thought. I think that, firstly, being a teenager is something that we have all experienced. We've all been to school and we all feel familiar with that environment. Secondly, it is interesting to look back on teenage experiences with an adult perspective. I'm sure we all think that we could have handled certain situations more effectively with the knowledge of the world and the confidence that we have gained as adults. So as we read novels about teenagers we both relate to the protagonists and feel superior to them.

In Prep the protagonist, Lee, is painfully self-conscious and instantly recognisable. She is paralyzed by self-doubt and spends most of her time at school analysing others for their slightest reactions. The novel is an interesting insider's perspective on an environment of wealth and privilege that is only vaguely familiar to most of us. The WASPs of Ault have ridiculously preppy first names like 'Gates' and 'Cross' but as you'd expect they carry their money and status with relaxed ease. Unfortunately Lee is quite an unlikeable narrator at times and this lead me to sympathise more with some of her classmates than with Lee herself. Her self-consciousness and paralysis mean that much of the novel is spent examining the smallest gestures for meaning and until towards the end there isn't much of a plot. While this is probably a realistic depiction of a teenage mind, a more ruthless editor might have made this a shorter, punchier novel. Ultimately Prep was an interesting but unsatisfying read for me.

My Latest Grievance is also narrated by a teenage girl, but Frederica Hatch is a very different creature to Lee Fiora, and Elinor Lipman is a very different writer to Curtis Sittenfeld. Like Lee, Frederica is interested in those around her, but this time it is the adult world that fascinates. Frederica is the daughter of Aviva Ginsburg Hatch and David Hatch, left-wing intellectuals and fervent unionists who are staff members and dorm parents at a small, not-very-good college in the 1970's. Their idyllic world is upset by the arrival on campus of the glamourous Laura Lee French who turns out to have once been married to David. Lipman pokes gentle fun at all her characters, particularly Frederica's folk-music-loving, cause-fighting parents. Frederica herself is an interesting character, one who is blissfully un-self aware, over-confident and relentlessly nosy. The plot moves along briskly and there are many genuinely funny moments. This is a light read but well-written and insightful. Lipman can laugh at her characters at the same time as showing affection for them and this made the novel a real pleasure for me.

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