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Book review: 'True Prep'

An updated and more inclusive look at the popped-collar, tonic water-drinking preppy set.

September 09, 2010|By Adam Tschorn | Los Angeles Times

For anyone who read — and fell in love with — "The Official Preppy Handbook," cracking the madras-clad spine of "True Prep" (oh, trust us Biff, it's there, beneath the yellow- and baby-blue stripes of the book jacket) is going to feel like returning to your beloved prep school for the 30th reunion: There's hope that things will be just as you left them on graduation day as well as the inevitable realization that three decades is bound to change things up a bit (and we're talking about a lot more than another roll of duct tape around the Sperry Top-Siders and a collection of country club memberships).

If you were somehow unaware of the first book, you may feel as lost as a townie at the tailgate party. But after a few pages (or that second bloody Mary), the discomfiting feeling gives way to a mixture of nostalgic longing and curiosity. After all, who wouldn't want to know where the dyed-in-the (merino) wool, summer-as-a-verb crowd circa 1980 might stand on reality TV, ringtones and rehab? And who better to tell us than Lisa Birnbach, one of the writers of "The Official Preppy Handbook"? For "True Prep," she's teamed up with book designer Chip Kidd (who has written two novels of his own, "The Cheese Monkeys" and "The Learners").

"True Prep" is not "The Official Preppy Handbook." It is not even a handbook, exactly. And it doesn't need to be. In 1980, "preppy" referred to an exotic, rarified species that needed decoding, and a tongue-in-cheek peek behind the duck blind helped the rest of the world make sense of these strange, popped-collar creatures in their Nantucket Reds. But in the years since, the preppy aesthetic has become so entrenched, disseminated and adopted, what's needed isn't a field guide but an updated operating manual.

In that respect, "True Prep" does not disappoint, tackling topics like polar fleece (it dubs the polyester fleece, made from recycled plastic water bottles, "the biggest change in thirty years"), rehab ("the new boarding school") and reality TV ("To suggest that reality TV is unprep doesn't go deeply enough into its deviltry"), with the same tone of the first book. And after three decades frozen in amber, it's nice to see what's new in the wardrobe (Tory Burch, Vineyard Vines, Ralph Lauren and J. Crew among them).

But, on a straight read through, the book can be a bit uneven in tone and focus. A good example is the "True Prep Pantheon," which serves up biographies on prep notables ( Tom Wolfe, Michelle Obama and Frank Lloyd Wright among them) that ends up feeling like a justification for revisiting this odd breed ("See, Muffy — we are relevant!").

The book is much more effective — and funny — with observations that meld preppy and pop culture: like the "Fictional Top Five" TV preppies (Attention Thurston Howell III and Murphy Brown, your hand-letter-pressed invitations are in the mail). And don't even get us started on the laundry list of famous folks who have attended college preparatory schools (therefore qualifying as preppy in a strict-constructionist sense of the word) that includes American Apparel founder Dov Charney (Choate Rosemary Hall), reality TV star Kim Kardashian (Buckley School) and Vin Diesel (Dwight School).

But that's actually the other reason for the book; the once-insular WASP nest has been busted open like a piñata, and the corduroy tent of prepdom now includes (or, more realistically, finally acknowledges) gay preppies ("Horses and classical music — those are the two big magnets for the gay elite," writes contributor Edmund White), black preppies (favorite spots during summer include Sag Harbor and Oak Bluffs). Preppy 2.0 isn't a caste system. It's a value system.

Which brings us to the real joy of the book — the rules and lists. The rules of thumb, commandments, caveats and lists of characteristics the authors offer up provide some funny, laugh-out-loud moments. A list of "prep travel commandments" includes "Number 14. Thou shalt tryest the tonic water in other lands, as it tastes different from thy domestic tonic water." The section on fashion advice offers the "High-heel rule: You must be able to run in them — on cobblestones, on a dock — in case of a spontaneous footrace." Racket sports are truly prep, we're told, and the list of sports that preps don't play includes jai alai, cockfighting and "anything involving hurling little people."

Those pronouncements, and the mock authoritative tone in which they were imparted, were much of what made the first book memorable and funny. And now, 30 years later, "True Prep" has turned up at the reunion. Don't be surprised to find it perhaps a little thinner in the hairline and thicker in the waistline, and prone to veer off into the occasional head-scratching non sequitur (comparative costs of baby nurses in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco anyone?). But one thing is for sure: After all these years, the class wit can still make you crack a smile by simply drawing attention to the rest of the people at the party.

That alone makes "True Prep" worthy of admission to a very elite club of its own: your reading list.

adam.tschorn@latimes.com

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