Sunday, June 08, 2008

School, but not as we know it ...

I've been anticipating the holiday season by reading Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld - maybe it's all this sunny weather that we've been having, uncharacteristically, in Argyll. The author's first book, it's the school story for grown-ups, rather in the way "Catcher in the Rye" is - though I hated Catcher and enjoyed this. It's the story of an outsider at boarding school in Massachusetts, the grant-aided student surrounded by wealthier kids, observing them in some detail as she struggles to find where she fits in.

School stories like this all benefit from the isolation of the setting - think The Chalet School, Tom Brown, Harry Potter, but think also the Agatha Christies set in remote country houses, or on a non-stop train. Any setting where the outside world cannot break in intensifies the emotions and the relationships within that setting, and that, I imagine, is as true in life as it is in fiction.

As such, Prep is a good example of the genre, well-written, perceptive and revealing. The foreignness of the American education revealed is an added attraction - though the effects of such an education could, I imagine, be hard to shake off. I was particularly interested in the interaction between the sexes in the school - but that may be a generational thing: there were no boys at The Chalet School.

I read Prep in a British edition, so was spared the irritation of American spelling; the dialogue and narrative are not noticeably American. Is this because Massachusetts isn't? In fact, apart from the slight puzzle working out stages - sophomore etc - and relating them to age-groups, the most extraordinary thing was the names. A girl called Dede (turned out to be the name of the author's aunt); a boy called Cross - both first names - and another girl called Aspeth: names I had never, ever come across. Girls whose first names I would give to a boy: Lee, Curtis (the author). I was sufficiently interested to enquire of a friend in the States what all this was about. (She has a perfectly recognisable name - no worries there)

This is what came back:
Southerners, especially, name their children family names - no matter the gender - or something like Jimmie Rae for a girl because the father wanted a boy! In the North we use family names, too, but usually as middle names. Rednecks usually choose Bobby Sue or some fly by night name. Also, they name boys Bobby or Jimmy, or Charlie - not real names.

So there's obviously a hierarchy of names, just as there is in the UK.

Prep is an entertaining read, with no infelicities to distract you in the sunshine. And though my borrowed copy was a pristine hardback - meaning no sun oil or hand lotion! - it is now available in paperback.

3 comments:

  1. Glad you liked it. It still bewilders me that any reader who wasn't at that sort of school could understand it, but clearly non-Preppies get something out of it.

    In regards to dialect: it is thoroughly New England. It must be the spelling that deceived you.

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  2. Consider Gaeldom, where the custom of naming the first-born after the paternal or maternal grandfather was the rule. If a girl inconveniently came first, there was no problem. Given a grandsire's name and a classical education, they came up with the following, all of whom I have known or known of: Hughina, Jamesina, Donaldina, Williamina, Alexandrina... the list, I am sure, goes on. These names are as strange as Dede (I've seen it once or twice spelled Deedee) or Cross. Just thank your lucky stars there wasn't a Zbigniew Brzezinski in the cast-list!

    btw - What about reviving the Roman habit of having family names based on ancestors' characteristics rather than professions (cf Cartwright, Smith, et al.)? Remember that the noblest Roman of them all was "Stupid", his victim "Hairy" and the vacillating orator "Chick Pea".

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  3. abf, I'm sure you could come up with a lovely name based on the sound of your own surname which would actually be quite close to one of your characteristics!

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