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'24-hour adolescence' is back in vogue

As they explore the torrid lives of prep school students, three novelists follow in the tradition of 'The Catcher in the Rye.'

June 01, 2005|Laura Shin | Special to The Times

First-time novelist Colleen Curran knew she wanted to write about teen sex but then set her book in what would appear to be the most staid environment possible: an all-girls' private school in the Midwest.

While that may seem counterintuitive, it could very well prove to be a stroke of brilliance. Prep schools have become fiction's "new black." Following close on the heels of fellow newcomer Curtis Sittenfeld's wildly successful "Prep," and just more than a year after Tobias Wolff's "Old School" hit bestseller lists, Curran's Catholic school girls join a coming-of-age genre that hasn't seen such attention since the 1950s, when "The Catcher in the Rye" and "A Separate Peace" were published.

For a society seemingly obsessed with the elite and with youth, prep schools have all the talking points. "A lot of readers associate private school with an East Coast exclusive mystique, and that goes into a trend right now of books, like 'The Nanny Diaries' and 'The Devil Wears Prada,' that lift the veil on an exclusive part of society, whether it's Upper East Side families or the elite fashion world," says Charlotte Abbott, the book news editor at Publishers Weekly.

In fact, the three most recent novels -- Curran's, Sittenfeld's and Wolff's -- play into that desire to see how the other half lives by writing from the point of view of the non-blueblood student, wide-eyed at the wealth that is only whispered about or otherwise silently acknowledged.

In "Old School," the main character says of his well-to-do friend, who is acting out and courting expulsion: "As the days passed, I came to see the drama ... as another display of blood-borne assurance. It mattered very much to me that I graduate, whereas it didn't really matter to Purcell. A diploma from the school would open no doors to him that weren't already open just because he was his father's son. He wouldn't even lose his place at Yale."

For the writer, though, it's more than just voyeurism; prep schools quite simply offer a perfect setting for a good story. The characters are young enough to be navigating the firsts of life -- first kiss, first sex, first betrayal -- without much help from parents, but old enough to experience intense emotional lives.

"It's 24-hour adolescence," Abbott says, "and even the relationships with the teachers are more intense than they would be in [public] high school, so it kicks up the temperature a few notches."

As Curran puts it, "Teenagers don't make the best decisions. They have no perspective yet." The Richmond, Va.-based writer set her just-released "Whores on the Hill" at the last all-girls' school in Milwaukee, for "that hothouse feeling" she was looking for.

While prep schools might appear to be the latest trend in fiction, in fact, says Abbott, "there is a long tradition of boarding school novels -- Harry Potter is the most obvious example of our time. That idea of boarding school is reinvented according to the particular mores of our time, so it's always a good setting," she says.

Curran agrees, saying it is a "very specific world that runs by certain rules ... and gives you a good sense of place." In "Whores on the Hill," she quickly delves into the nuances among the uniformed girls that serve as the basis for entire cliques.

Although everyone wore pleated wool skirts, white oxford shirts and red or blue sweaters, "personality unfolded in the details.... Even socks, in a pinch, could express a mood or a student's political stance," she writes.

Curran's main characters -- Thisbe and her friends Astrid and Juli -- decode the markings: Sporty girls are signified by tennis socks, preppy girls by knee-highs, future nuns by woolen tights, and so on. Sittenfeld also makes clear in "Prep" -- about a Midwestern girl who goes to an East Coast boarding school on scholarship -- that most outsiders see a sea of conformity where private school students see a world full of rank and shades of meaning.

Think "Lord of the Flies" without the island.

Sittenfeld's protagonist, Lee Fiora, spends most of her high school years thinking she doesn't fit in, until her senior year, when she's at the airport and realizes, "My age, my clothes, the books in my backpack, probably even my posture -- these all were markers, signifiers of my membership in a subculture I felt I belonged to only when I was away from it."

Prep school students' separation from their families and homes serves to compound the isolation and loneliness the fish-out-of-water protagonists often feel. Sittenfeld does that one better by setting her story before the Internet and cellphones were widely used.

She recalls of her own prep school years that an entire dorm of roughly 18 girls would share one payphone without an answering machine. "That makes the events of the school loom really large and feel really consuming," she says, not just for her characters but also the reader.

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