I have to admit that I spent much of the first half of Amber Dermont’s debut novel wondering if I was really going to review it for this blog. Was it wishful thinking? Did I just WANT it to have teen appeal? I knew it appealed to me right away. At first, that was because I went to boarding school in the mid-80s. I recognized these boys and their world, the time period, right off the bat.
But the more time I spent reading, the less my own experience mattered. The characters! The setting! The relationships! The descriptions of what it feels like to sail, on the edge and without fear. The joy of being expert at something, of being young and strong. The focus that makes everything else disappear. Being fully in the moment. The joy of speaking shorthand with a sailing partner every bit as talented. Reading the wind and the waves.
The sailing scenes are maybe 2% of the novel, yet they permeate the story. Partly because the sea is right there. Partly because it is never far from Jason’s thoughts. He misses it, even though he refuses to sail for the Bellingham team. Mostly he reminisces about sailing with Cal. Cal. Who is dead at the beginning of the novel, yet manages to be as real as any other character in the book. Because Jason thinks about him. Because in the way Jason tells Aidan about him, we understand even more about their relationship. More than Jason himself understands.
Another character I cannot get out of my head — Chester, the school’s token African-American student. A tennis star who is the one person with whom Jason works to build an honest friendship, almost in spite of himself. (For someone determined to be part of the cool senior crowd, very risky.) In fact, becoming friends with Chester pretty much teaches Jason how to be a true friend. It’s not as sappy or artificial as that sounds. It works.
One trope in YA literature is an absence of adults. As I mention in the review, this is a school of last resort. A place where the rich kids who have been kicked out of the better schools come to finish their high school careers. Jason says, “Aidan had compared Bellingham to the Island of Misfit Toys, a sanctuary for the unwanted. But the problem, as I saw it, was that putting this many defective kids together only created more trouble.” Unfortunately, this is a school that lives up to its reputation. The faculty and the administration basically look the other way. A few teachers make an impression on Jason, but adults are largely absent or ineffectual. All kinds of bad behavior (and very little studying) goes on. Most disturbing is the hazing. Today we call it bullying and we talk about it openly in our attempts to stop it. In the 80’s, it was hazing and it was rarely mentioned. At Bellingham, it is school tradition. Early in the novel, Jason believes “The tedium of boarding school could be broken down into stages of getting hazed and hazing. We took turns hurting one another not because we were mean or violent but because we were bored.” By the end, he is much less blasé.
I’ve seen The Starboard Sea compared to A Separate Peace, The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye. It doesn’t need those comparisons. It flies just fine on its own.
Adult/High School–On the day he turns 18, Jason Prosper leaves Upper East Side Manhattan and heads north to Bellingham Academy , a last-chance boarding school for kids expelled from better institutions, caught by the “safety net of parents’ wealth.” That first afternoon he spies what looks like a cormorant wading several yards out to sea, only to realize that it’s a girl about to do herself harm. Aidan only laughs when he plunges in to save her, easily walking to shore. Jason is entranced by this strange creature with a troubled past of her own. Their budding relationship helps him begin to heal from the loss of Cal, his best friend, roommate, and sailing partner. One year earlier, when their relationship moved beyond friendship, Jason’s betrayal precipitated Cal ’s suicide, and Jason likens his loss to losing a limb. Now he kicks around with a group of disaffected, immature fellow seniors, Race, Kriffo, and Tazewell. The 1987 stock market crashplaces the novel in historical context, as does the faculty’s cavalier attitude toward student discipline, particularly the ubiquitous hazing. Otherwise, today’s young adults will recognize the ever-shifting tensions and alliances among teen boys, the agony of losing a friendship, the shame of disappointing a parent, and the exhilaration of being young and talented. Jason is a champion sailor and his descriptions of sailing are exquisite. After the arrival of a hurricane coincides with a student death, he focuses on solving what he comes to believe was a murder by fellow students. Aidan and Jason’s relationship brings to mind Alaska and Miles’s relationship in John Green’s Looking for Alaska (Dutton, 2005), and this more contemplative novel shares a similar central suspense and tension.– Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City