Ordinary People

From a lingering case of boarding school nerves to quirky pleasures of the middle ages

 The Dictionary of Imaginary Places (2000) has an entry for J.K. Rowling's Hogwarts school of wizardry, but neglects to mention some nonmagical—but equally fictional—American counterparts. It's a good parlor game, for those with parlors: Devon (A Separate Peace), Dorset Academy (Richard Yates's The Good School), Chatham (Caitlin Macy's The Fundamentals of Play), Baker & Inglis (Middlesex), and The Catcher in the Rye's veritable regatta roster—Pencey Prep, the Whooton School, Elkton Hills, Saxon Hall. The narrator of Tobias Wolff's Old School (2003) never mentions his almost alma mater, but a crucial scene involves its sister school, the nonexistent Miss Cobb's. Expert players can extend the field to TV and movies; many will recall The Facts of Life's prestigious Eastland—but who can dredge up the school from Class?

To this roster, add the Ault School, somewhere in Massachusetts, the setting for Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep. The novel tracks scholarship student Lee Fiora, a mattress salesman's daughter from South Bend, Indiana, through her four years at Ault. In a freshman ancient-history class, she loses her footing, and she never quite gets it back. Nearly friendless, at times transfixed by the various gods and goddesses of the student body, Lee undergoes a helpless sapping of the will. Though sensitive to a fault, she's no Holden Caulfield: The phoniness she's most attuned to is the one she fears might be in herself.

The genius of Ault lies in rituals (a day of surprise vacation, indicated by the wearing of a green jacket), in dusty names engraved on every available surface, in its powerful myth as a place where, back in the all-boys era, seniors would simply write Harvard, Yale, or Princeton on a slip of paper, and thereby matriculate to the college so desired. Sittenfeld has a field day weaving its aura, but she's also canny and believable about lust (Lee's sub-rosa relationship with golden boy Cross Sugarman) and cruelty. In a sophomore English class, girls pass a chart rating the unfashionable getup of a young teacher; as a senior, Lee finds that they've also been rated, albeit more lewdly.

Amy Krouse Rosenthal: Encyclopedia clown
photo: Blair Jensen
Amy Krouse Rosenthal: Encyclopedia clown

Details

Prep
By Curtis Sittenfeld
Random House, 406 pp., $21.95
Buy this book

Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life
By Amy Krouse Rosenthal
Crown, 220 pp., $23
Buy this book

The big topic here is class, of course, and occasionally Sittenfeld's social X-raying made this reader wince: "Yes, she was rich, but she was also Jewish, and, with a big nose and the last name Schwartz, she wasn't the kind of Jewish you could hide"; "Like most Ault parents, they were rich . . . but they were Korean rich, foreign rich, and that was not at all the same as New England, or New York, rich." It's not readily apparent whether such sentiments are coming from the mind of Lee as young outsider, reading the Ault climate, or from her current self, looking back. If the former, she's showing how her callow zingers aped sophistication; if the latter, one wishes Lee knew better.

At times unspeakably shy, with her own secret codes of conduct, Lee finally gets her day, but whether it's something she wants is the question that lingers with the reader. Prep ends with a subway epiphany, a goodbye to an education more bitter than sweet and a surge toward the next, hopefully wiser, phase. Life at Ault finds a mirror in its very letters: It's almost adult.

Such logophilia is catnip to Amy Krouse Rosenthal, whose strange and satisfying Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life stuffs observations large and small into a goofy abecedarian framework. Under "Wordplays," she notes, "I am bewitched by the perfection of the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO)'s bumper sticker: PLAYSOCCER," and follows this with an apocryphal, indeed fairly daft story of how the snack Fig Newmans came to be.

Encyclopedia has miles of pillow book charm, from an informal collation of the way we live now (Machines We Own, Colors of the J. Crew Catalog) to a table dedicated to "finding meaning in license plates." Rosenthal's humor is generous and endearingly scattershot, but she's not just a jokester. In the prefatory "Evolution of This Moment," she provides a time line to the book's creation, including both aesthetic-shaping milestones in her life and the actual selling of the book—a Möbius strip maneuver that sets the agreeably mind-bending atmosphere of book as art project. Taking the name of a genre obsessed with fixed knowledge, Rosenthal time and again pokes holes in the sober format: admitting with present-tense intimacy her fondness for a Joseph Brodsky collection ("Right now I think this book will change my life"), inserting 18 pages of childhood memories under, what else, "Childhood Memories."

The singular sadness of Lee Fiora's Ault years is her outward ordinariness, not just in appearance but in achievements and talent. Rosenthal, 39, predicates her Encyclopedia on her own self-described ordinariness, which of course is a ploy to show us how fascinating she really is. Her gift for capturing the emotional life of seemingly trivial observations will appeal to fans of Nicholson Baker's early fiction or Daniel Spoerri's desktop deconstruction An Anecdoted Topography of Chance, and anyone who wants to know what they might be feeling right about now.

 
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