Sittenfeld, Curtis 1975–

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Sittenfeld, Curtis 1975–

PERSONAL:

Born 1975, in Cincinnati, OH; daughter of Paul (an investment banker) Sittenfeld; mother is an art history teacher. Education: Stanford University, B.A.; attended Iowa University Writers' Workshop, 2001.

ADDRESSES:

Home—Philadelphia, PA.

CAREER:

St. Albans School, Washington, DC, writer-in-residence, 2002-03, teacher of English, 2003—.

AWARDS, HONORS:

Fiction contest winner, Seventeen, 1992; Annual fiction contest winner, Mississippi Review, 1998; Michener-Copernicus Society of America Award.

WRITINGS:

NOVELS

Prep, Random House (New York, NY), 2005.

The Man of My Dreams, Random House (New York, NY), 2006.

American Wife, Random House (New York, NY), 2008.

Contributor to New York Times, Washington Post, and Fast Company.

ADAPTATIONS:

Prep was optioned for film by Paramount.

SIDELIGHTS:

"Lee Fiora, the unlovably self-conscious narrator in Curtis Sittenfeld's first novel, Prep, leaves South Bend, Indiana, to attend Ault, a fictional prep school outside Boston mostly because she was enchanted by the pictures in the brochure: gorgeous students in wool sweaters romping and lacrossing between classes in the fall foliage, buckling down in serious-looking campus buildings," explained Hank Stuever in the Washington Post. Substitute Cincinnati and Groton for the hometown and prep school, and that is roughly the story of Sittenfeld herself. That does not mean that her first novel is strictly autobiographical. As Sittenfeld told Felicia R. Lee in the New York Review of Books, "it was hard work to write it. I almost think some people think I went home one night, I had a glass of wine, pulled out my yearbook and got lost in my musings."

At any rate, Sittenfeld's background clearly provides her "an almost clinically accurate and absorbing glimpse into the daily life of an exclusive, privileged place," in the words of Stuever. Into this world comes Lee Fiora, desperate to fit in but almost hopelessly envious of the rich, self-confident WASPs who surround her in her new environment. She does, however, have hidden resources of her own. As Carol Deptolla pointed out in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "on the occasions she can bring herself to speak to her peers, Lee can be devastatingly funny; she's a poster child for all the people who have to rely on wit instead of wealth and punch lines instead of popularity." Eventually, Lee develops a niche cutting hair for the popular kids and ultimately attracts the attention of the big man on campus, Cross Sugerman. At the same time, she grows estranged from her own family, seeking to hide them during their visit to her new world, and drawing an angry apology from her father that he could not give her all the things she obviously values so much. Only after graduation does Lee begin to realize that there are more important things and a much wider world beyond the gates of Ault.

For Library Journal reviewer Elaine Bender, the plot of Prep "add[s] up to little more than the familiar picture," but for Booklist reviewer Michael Cart, "saving the book from formula … are some fine writing and assorted shrewd insights into both the psychology of adolescence and the privileged world of a traditional prep school." According to a Kirkus Reviews contributor, "the boarding-school formula allows … Sittenfeld the comforting slippers-and-ice-cream haven of chick-lit while allowing much more in the way of psychological insight."

The Man of My Dreams, Sittenfeld's second novel, was published in 2006. In an Entertainment Weekly interview with Leah Greenblatt, Sittenfeld explained that, although the novel was published only one year after Prep, she had been working on the new story for some time. Sittenfeld stated: "It actually started as a short story, which I scrapped about eighty-five percent of. I'm not sure of the exact date, but it was before graduate school that I started thinking about episodes in Hannah's life. In some ways it seems like I wrote this book in six months, but I actually probably wrote it in more like eight years." Although some might call Sittenfeld's second novel chick-lit because it depicts a woman and her dating exploits, the author told Greenblatt that, "undeniably, I sometimes am labeled that way. But I also don't think people agree what the term means. Is it a compliment or an insult? There's not a real consensus."

In The Man of My Dreams, protagonist Hannah is a somewhat depressed character who must deal with college at Tufts, her parents' divorce, her first relationship, and her first job. Hannah is seeing a therapist for her low self-esteem, and she accompanies her sister to Alaska, along with her sister's fiancé and his brother. Hannah's anxiety gets the better of her throughout the trip, and despite the beautiful setting, she feels unhappy and out of place, like a third wheel. Through it all, Hannah continues to date, and she dumps her first boyfriend because he is too nice and also boring. In her next romantic encounter, Hannah dates office-mate Oliver, a New Zealander who is an unashamed philanderer. Hannah ultimately grows tired of Oliver's affairs, even though she agreed to them. She next moves to Chicago to be with her cousin's ex-boyfriend, Henry, whom she's had a crush on for several years. The couple never consummates their relationship, and Hannah leaves feeling frustrated and even less confident than before. By the end of the novel, however, Hannah has moved to New Mexico, and though she is not in a relationship, she has found some measure of contentment by working at a school for autistic children. Hannah even writes a letter to her therapist and talks about her progress.

Commenting on this interesting choice of protagonist and subject matter, New York Times Book Review critic Claire Dederer observed that "in its essence," The Man of My Dreams "is a novel about loneliness, never a promising outlook." Nevertheless, the book "reads mostly like a comic novel; Sittenfeld circles Hannah, laughing at her, sympathizing with her, even judging her." Based on this, Dederer found that the novel "shows us a writer who is in it for the long haul…. The legions of readers who loved Prep will most likely not flock to this quiet novel. But Sittenfeld's determined exploration of her character's interior life feels like bravery." Kristine Huntley, writing in Booklist, stated: "The magic of this coming-of-age tale lies in how it captures a generation of young women's anxiety."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

Booklist, December 15, 2004, Michael Cart, review of Prep, p. 709; February 15, 2006, Kristine Huntley, review of The Man of My Dreams, p. 7.

Entertainment Weekly, January 21, 2005, Rebecca Ascher-Walsh, review of Prep, p. 93; May 10, 2006, Leah Greenblatt, "The Q&A"; May 19, 2006, Whitney Pastorek, "‘Man’ Trouble," p. 80.

Kirkus Reviews, November 15, 2004, review of Prep, p. 1067.

Library Journal, December 1, 2004, Elaine Bender, review of Prep, p. 103; April 1, 2006, Jan Blodgett, review of The Man of My Dreams, p. 87.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, February 2, 2005, Carol Deptolla, "‘Prep’ Earns Good Grades as Readable School Story."

New Statesman, September 11, 2006, Elinor Cook, "Whatever, Babe," p. 57.

New York, June 5, 2006, Liesl Schillinger, "Arrested Development: Curtis Sittenfeld's Post-prep Novel," p. 76.

New York Review of Books, January 26, 2005, Felicia R. Lee, "Although She Wrote What She Knew, She Says She Isn't What She Wrote."

New York Times Book Review, May 21, 2006, Claire Dederer, review of The Man of My Dreams.

People, February 21, 2005, review of Prep, p. 48.

Publishers Weekly, February 14, 2005, Daisy Maryles, "Prep for Success," p. 14; November 1, 2004, review of Prep, p. 41; February 27, 2006, review of The Man of My Dreams, p. 31.

Time, May 22, 2006, Lev Grossman, "Prepping for Love," p. 68.

Washington Post, December 12, 2004, Caitlin Macy, "School Ties," review of Prep, p. T7; February 23, 2005, Hank Stuever, "Move over, Holden," p. C1.

ONLINE

Bookreporter.com,http://www.bookreporter.com/ (June 11, 2008), author interview.

Curtis Sittenfeld Home Page,http://www.curtissittenfeld.com (April 14, 2005).

DCist.com,http://www.dcist.com/ (February 24, 2005), Austin Dienst, interview with Sittenfeld.

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Sittenfeld, Curtis 1975–

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