Curtis Sittenfeld: Novels of Emotional Authenticity | Three Novels of Astute Emotional Portraiture

Curtis Sittenfeld

When former Prairie Lights employee and Writers’ Workshop graduate Curtis Sittenfeld returned to Iowa City in early 2005 to read from her debut novel, Prep, it was just beginning to be clear that she had written a book that was a quality addition to the shelves of her former workplace. Eventually, the book was named one of the top 10 books of 2005 by the New York Times.

Prep is narrated by Lee Fiora, who recounts her four years at Ault School, an East Coast boarding school where the middle-class Midwesterner feels out of her depth. She soon discovers that her insecurities overwhelm her ability to enjoy everything from the simple pleasures of school to the sudden attentions of a boy she has long admired. At the same time, she drifts from her family and the emotional support she imagines it could provide.

Lee’s interior struggles occasionally wear on the reader, particularly in the book’s middle third. Sittenfeld rallies with her imagining of Lee’s dramatic senior year. The confusions, joys, and sorrows of Lee’s first physical relationship and her feelings following a seeming betrayal of her schoolmates are rendered in fine detail and are gut-wrenching to experience.

The authenticity of that emotional portrayal combined with a sharp ear for the disjointed, emotional conversations that signal the end of relationships are Sittenfeld’s true strengths. Her melancholy story of a young girl swept up in that period of life when everything seems to have cosmic importance is moving and always rings true.

With her second novel, The Man of My Dreams, Sittenfeld seemed to officially claim her niche by penning a second female coming-of-age novel replete with sexual angst. While this might suggest that Sittenfeld was in danger of falling into a rut, it was also clear that she excels in the territory which she had staked out for herself.

Hannah Gavener’s problems with men seem to stem from her childhood spent with—and then apart from—a troubled father given to fits of rage. The Man of My Dreams traces Hannah’s romantic life beginning in the summer of 1991 when she is 14 and obsessed with the upcoming nuptials of Julia Roberts and Kiefer Sutherland. This sort of cultural detail establishes Sittenfeld’s story in a particular time and is one of the author’s strengths.

As in Prep, the central relationship in the book is allowed to simmer for much of the book and, when it again becomes a key portion of the plot, Sittenfeld never seems tempted to grab the easy happy ending. Even so, The Man of My Dreams is not nearly as memorable a novel as its predecessor.

Recently, I discovered on the Internet that Curtis Sittenfeld had a new novel coming out, American Wife, based on the life of First Lady Laura Bush. Despite all the publicity garnered as a result of its subject matter, the main question to ask about the book is simple: Is it any good? Answer: It’s no Prep, but it’s not too bad.

Alice Blackwell, Sittenfeld’s stand-in for Mrs. Bush, has been deeply wounded by personal tragedy prior to finding herself in love with a handsome, privileged, hard-drinking, vulgar, baseball-loving, Ivy League educated, right-wing fellow who wanders aimlessly through life until he finds religion and starts getting elected.

In Alice’s voice, the book examines how such a woman—a school librarian from a modest background with political views that lean to the left and no religious convictions to speak of—could be married to such a man.

It is, perhaps, an interesting thought experiment, but it doesn’t make a terribly interesting novel. Though Sittenfeld certainly fictionalizes her subjects, their reality intrudes on her craft at every turn. The book is overlong and never delivers a particularly revelatory moment. If you’re new to Sittenfeld’s work, ignore the buzz surrounding American Wife and grab a copy of Prep.

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