Monday, May 8, 2006

Prep School Memoirs

Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld is one of the more recent in a long line of books based in a "prep" or boarding school. Similar coming of age stories include:
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger and A Separate Peace by John Knowles. Both novels are often assigned for high school English classes (which can ruin the experience of reading any book I've always thought.)
There are also the true prep school stories, biographies or memoirs like Stand Before Your God: an American Schoolboy in England by Paul Watkins (1995), Old School by Tobias Wolff (2003), and Black Ice by Lorene Cary. These and many other such books explore the idea of the outsider's experience which is made more painful by being an adolescent.
From the teacher's perspective there is the classic, if sentimental and dated, Goodbye, Mr. Chips by James Hilton. Even the Harry Potter series could be considered part of this (sub)genre.
A subject search of the catalog using the phrase "preparatory school students - fiction" or "boarding schools - fiction" yielded Limony Snicket's Austere Academy, The Little Princess by Frances Hodgkins Burnett, The Finishing School by Michelle Martinez (2006) and The Headmaster's Wife by Jane Haddam (2005) among others. Clearly there is an enduring interest in private school life. Often the portrait painted of those schools is anywhere from horrific and brutal to, at best, bittersweet and poignant. The students who attended the schools often seem to have mixed feelings and conflicted memories, those people who didn't enjoy/endure this form of education wonder what they missed.
Have you noticed that the word of the last week is schadenfreude? "The enjoyment obtained from the mishaps of others,"(Webster's Third) which is used lately in connection with the Opal Mehta plagiarism story, but is now popping up everywhere in that virus-like way that ideas/phrases/words have on the internet and blogs (discussed in this blog entry, the L-Magazine noticed this word-overuse first apparently.)
What got me thinking about all this was my high school reunion last weekend. One topic of this reunion was the book that one of our classmates wrote about our girls boarding school and specifically about our class at "Brangwyn." Not a pretty picture was given in the Moth Diaries, a gothic story of vampires, petty jealousies and lust, drugs and rock and roll at an "elite" (aren't they always?) boarding school on the Philadelphia Main Line. In the book, Lucy dies (am I giving too much away here?) after being bitten by a vampire -cum-boarder and another girl dies by falling off the gutters of the Victorian residence where the boarders live. Did this provide a literary schadenfreude for the author? Schadenfreude as literary revenge? What e v err! as todays teens would say.


blind_schoolb said...

I also attended boarding school.

Anonymous said...

I am fascinated by boarding school stories. Thank you for this thoughtful summary. You reminded me of books I've not read in awhile.

Now a freelance writer, I was sent away to St. John's Villa Academy on Staten Island, NY, in 2nd & 3rd grade. I'm chronicling that experience on my blog, "Girls Sent Away," about the life of girls in a Catholic boarding school in the Sixties.

I hope you'll visit!