Ault had been my idea. I’d researched boarding schools at the public library and written away for catalogs myself. Their glossy pages showed photographs of teenagers in wool sweaters singing hymns in the chapel, gripping lacrosse sticks, intently regarding a math equation written across the chalkboard. I had traded away my family for this glossiness. I’d pretended it was about academics, but it never had been….I imiagined that if I left South Bend, I would meet a melancholy, athletic boy who liked to read as much as I did and on overcast Sundays we would take walks together wearing wool sweaters.
Lee Fiora, originally from South Bend, Indiana, transplanted to a high-end boarding school in Massachusetts, might just be the most unknowable first-person narrator I’ve ever read. Many of her comments ring so true to me, but somehow I still don’t get her; I feel a much stronger emotional connection with Gene from A Separate Peace, and was far more involved in Huey’s development as I read They Come in All Colors, even though my worldspace is much closer to Lee’s. After 400 pages of listening to her thoughts and seeing her actions, I still have no idea who she is.
A great example of this comes from the beginning of her sophomore year, about a third of the way through the book. Her English teacher has assigned an essay: write about something you care about, and take a stand. Lee writes an adequate essay about school prayer, but asterisks the title: “This is not an issue I truly care about but I believe it fulfills the assignment.” Girl could give master classes in passive aggressiveness. “You’re a cipher,” the teacher tells her, noting that other students want to be friends with her but she seems completely unengaged in anything. And, though it makes for somewhat frustrating reading, I can understand. I know what it is to feel like – and notice, that’s an interpretation, not reality – anything you say will just draw boredom, scorn, or rebuke. Thing is, she seems to be able to make friends – it’s just that they aren’t the friends she’s interested in.
Some light is shed on this at the very end of the book, when she, as an adult, recalls Martha, her roommate and best – maybe only – friend for three years
I never understood when I was at Ault why she liked me as much as I liked her. Even now, I’m still not sure. I couldn’t give back half of what she gave me, and that fact should have knocked off the balance between us, but it didn’t, and I don’t know why not. Later, after Ault, I reinvented myself – not overnight but little by little. Also had taught me everything I needed to know about attracting and alienating people, what the exact measurements ought to be of confidence and self-deprecation, humor, disclosure, inquisitiveness; even, finally, of enthusiasm. Also, Ault Had been the toughest audience I’d ever encounter, to the extent that sometimes afterward, I found winning people over disappointingly easy. If Martha and I had met when we were, say, twenty-two, it wouldn’t have been hard for me to believe she’d like me. But she had liked me before I became likable; that was the confusing part.
All the “what made me a success” stories I’ve ever read give great credence to these kinds of skills – not grades, or knowledge of any subject matter, or even popularity – and it seems Lee got a terrific education though she wasn’t able to apply it until much later.
The novel has a beads-on-a-string structure, one incident after another, with some resonance between them but not much. Within the beads there may be some tension and narrative drive, but there’s really no track on which the novel as a whole runs, other than the elapsing of four years of high school. I tried reading it as an observer novel – the story is about the other students – but that doesn’t work either, since we find out little about how they grow and change. No, the story is about Lee.
She feels awkward as a student, but in fact has fairly good social skills. She has friendly relations, if not friendships, with several students. She stumbles into a role cutting other students’ hair. She is the one called upon when a fellow student, her first-year roommate, attempts suicide. But it all seems far removed from her. Her closest relationship is with Martha, but only two extended conversations, bracketing the friendship, are revealed, making it seem like an arrangement of convenience rather than a close friendship. Even her eventual sexual relationship is something she enters into passively. Willingly, I should say, happily even, though it’s her partner who initiates and continues the relationship, who determines where and when – and, more importantly, where and when not.
Only one thing seems to really interest her: a classmate named Cross. She has an unexpected encounter with him as a freshman, then spends a couple of years thinking about him, avoiding looking like she’s paying any attention to him while focusing intently on everything he does.
One of the beads-on-a-string that interested me most was the game of Assassin, a kind of anonymous tag in which each student has to put a sticker on a target student, thus assassinating her and eliminating her from the game. Lee is really into this game (and maybe that’s why it stands out in my mind), and because she’s almost invisible to everyone, she does quite well at sneaking up on people. Eventually she finds a student, one of the boys, a challenge, and hides under a table to get close enough to tag him. Her entire motivation for his game, however, is the fantasy that she will eventually end up assassinating Cross. Her own assassination, what for anyone else would feel like a betrayal, is only a disappointment because she is out of the game before this happens.
The book is filled with great pithy observations that I might have said at some point along the way:
I always worried someone would notice me, and then when no one did, I felt lonely.
The interest I felt in certain guys then confused me, because it wasn’t romantic, but I wasn’t sure what else it might be. But now I know: I wanted to take up people’s time making jokes, to tease the dean in front of the entire school, to call him by a nickname. What I wanted was to be a cocky high-school boy, so fucking sure of my place in the world.
…nothing broke my heart like the slow death of a shared joke that had once seemed genuinely funny.
I believed then that if you had a good encounter with a person, it was best not to see them again for as long as possible lest you taint the previous interaction.
It struck me suddenly that my parents might be bewildered by me, the Ault version of me for whom it was a daring act to eat spaghetti.
…I had figured out early on how Aubrey liked me best: trying but not getting anything right. Or maybe not getting anything right but trying. Either way, the other person’s reaction was the only thing that ever counted to me…
The alcohol on his breath could have conjured up bus stations and old men with dirty clothes and bloodshot eyes, but because I was seventeen and a virgin and because I lived nine months a year on a campus of brick buildings and wooded hills and lovingly mown athletic fields, it’s conjured for me summer dances at country clubs, lives with wonderful secrets.
And then I realized that here, in sports, it was okay to show that something mattered to you.
My regret surged and billowed, as regret does in the middle of the night; everything had happened so quickly, the chance to have caused a different outcome was still so recent. … You had a window of opportunity. if you had used it, you probably would have embarrassed yourself, but it not using it, you wasted something irretrievable.
The last event of her senior year is the most emotionally packed and gripping: the school arranges for her, and a few other students not from the usual upper-crust prep school crowd, to give an individual interview to a NYT reporter. She thinks she’s just talking to an interested adult, and is shocked to see her words appear in the article as an indictment of boarding-school culture. Her first honest conversation in four years poisons her final week at a school; it’s telling that no one had any idea she felt isolated.
Although I had great sympathy for her – I once had a newspaper interview go bad, though nowhere near as bad and on a much smaller scale – I still kept thinking she was the one primarily responsible for her isolation. This, I think, is the reason for the disconnected-narrator approach: like her fellow students, I wanted to get to know her, but she, as narrator, kept me at arm’s distance.
I discovered this book through, of all things, the Odyssey. On Twitter, I follow classicist Prof. Emily Wilson, whose recent translation of Homer reveals much about other versions. She mentioned a blog post that looked at Odysseus as an unlikeable character. I went poking around that blog, written by Jaime Lustig and primarily focused on anime and manga, and found a delightful Favorite Books page. I recognized Sittenfeld’s name, since I’d recently read, and later came to more fully appreciate, her story “Gender Studies” in Pushcart. This is where I first got the idea to do a three-book “prep school” series, since I already had a recommendation for They Come in All Colors and was going to finish my planned summer reading with time to spare.
Of the novel, Jaime said, “It’s also the most perfect book about realizing that everything we thought was the fault of a world that doesn’t get us, is actually our fault and we missed so many opportunities to connect.” That’s a perfect description. And something for me to think about, as well.