Curtis Sittenfeld is the author of Prep, one of the New York Times Ten Best Books of 2005. Her most recent novel is American Wife.
Five years ago, when my first novel, Prep, was published, reviewers and readers compared it both favorably and unfavorably to The Catcher in the Rye. U.S.News & World Report said, "For everyone who wished that Holden Caulfield was a girl, your time has come with Prep."
Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty images
Meanwhile, a customer reviewer on Amazon who gave my novel one star wrote, "Just because this book is set at a boarding school does not put it into the ranks of J.D. Salinger." As it happened, I kind of agreed with that reviewer. Yes, both The Catcher in the Rye and Prep featured disaffected teenage protagonists, but that's about it — even the boarding school setting isn't much of a commonality because very little of The Catcher in the Rye actually takes place at the fictitious Pencey Prep. But most people don't remember this detail, which made me suspect that those making The Catcher in the Rye/Prep comparisons probably hadn't read The Catcher in the Rye for, oh, say, 30 years.
Courtesy of Curtis Sittenfeld
Prep has drawn frequent comparison's to Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye.
It was 20 years ago that I myself first encountered Holden Caulfield. In the summer of 1989, when I was 13 and just a few months away from leaving home in Ohio for Groton School in Massachusetts, my parents, my older sister and I went to the movie theater to see Dead Poets Society. Noticing how taken I was with the whole preppy milieu, my father told me I needed to read The Catcher in the Rye. I did, and I loved it — I was captivated by Holden's distinctive voice and mournful sense of humor, by the mundane yet profound way he questioned the world: Why were so many people phonies? Where did the ducks in the Central Park lagoon go when the water froze over? And to this day, when I see swear words graffitied on walls or carved into bathroom stalls, I think of the passage when Holden laments the way people deface public spaces — a passage I can't, unfortunately, quote here because of its frank obscenities.
My admiration for The Catcher in the Rye means I don't mind when people compare Prep to it — I mean, even if I consider the comparison off-base, I'm incredibly flattered. I suppose it's a little like being told how great your hair looks on a day you didn't wash it. You could go into a long-winded explanation, or instead you could do what I eventually decided to do whenever people tell me that Prep reminded them of The Catcher in the Rye — I just say thank you.