Saturday, March 31, 2012

Review: The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont

THE STARBOARD SEA
By Amber Dermont
St. Martin's Press. 310 pp. $24.99

Given the title of the title of Amber Dermont’s beautiful debut novel, it should not be surprising that its narrator, Jason Prosper, sees the world in images related to the sea. A building on the campus of his new boarding school becomes a “barracuda.” Yellow splotches on jackets of boys running become sunfish. Jason loves the sea. He has grown up sailing with his best friend Cal, first as kids, and then at boarding school. 

The Starboard Sea opens as Jason starts his senior year at a new boarding school, Bellingham, which is known for giving second chances to students expelled from other schools. Jason’s crime: cheating. The fact that it came in the wake of Cal committing suicide does not matter to administrators. And despite the old rumor that anyone whose roommate commits suicide gets an automatic 4.0, Jason is thrown out. 

Bellingham is populated with rich kids, both old and new money. Jason comes from the former. His family has been in banking for years and owns a portrait of his great-great-grandmother painted by John Singer Sargent. As a condition on accepting Jason, his father has promised Bellingham enough money to fund two new dorms. One will be named in honor of the current headmaster; the other will be called Prosper Hall, a fact that only somewhat embarrasses Jason.

Upon arriving at Bellingham, Jason is not certain if he wants to sail again. He’s barely ever sailed with anyone but Cal and he’s not sure he wants to sail with anyone else. They were the perfect team. When he decides to try out, an accident where he nearly kills the team captain makes his decision to quit easier. This decision gives him more time to himself, which he spends with a new friend, Aidan, who despite the male name, is a girl.

It becomes obvious early on that Jason has secrets, but he reveals himself little by little, both to the reader and to Aidan.  Fortunately he is not the classic unreliable narrator. His final reveal, at the end of the novel, proves this, but it takes a while to get there. Still, we learn early on that his friendship with Cal crossed boundaries that most male friendships do not.  Aidan has secrets too, which she is equally reticent to divulge. The reason she has ended up at Bellingham has become the topic of many school rumors and it is sometime before she tells Jason the truth. An especially beautiful aspect of the novel is that their relationship does not progress in the expected way, especially given how much unsupervised time they are able to muster. Their relationship retains a sweetness and innocence that other relationships at Bellingham do not. Dermont provides a funny description of how Bellingham allows make-out time every evening in the darkness of one of the dorms, where some students take “make out” to another level.

Dermont’s missteps are few. In one scene, parents threw cash into holes dug at a groundbreaking, as donations to the school. If that wasn’t bizarre enough, when the wind scatters the bills, no administrators bother to collect them. Later, students pass them by them by, stuck in tree branches, without stopping. Dermont’s message: these students are too rich to care. But somebody must care. Not every single student could have possibly come from money. Where were the scholarship students? Even the one named minority student was rich. By trying to heighten the sense of privilege of the students, Dermont threatens to turn Bellingham and its inhabitants into a caricature of itself.

Aidan, who believes her father may be Robert Mitchum, provides the best balance to the other students at Bellingham. She is still wealthy—from her mother’s family—but she comes from California, and not the Northeast, like the rest of the students. She also cares about her studies and music. As a testament to this fact, a teacher gives her the key to a special study room in library with a piano, where she and Jason pass time.

Midway through the novel, when a hurricane hits the school, another event leads to a change in the narrative. What was a simple beautiful portrait of a time and place and people becomes a mystery that Jason must solve. The shift is startling, dramatic, but in the end, unsuccessful. It adds outward drama to a story which already had drama just below the surface.

Still, The Starboard Sea is a touching portrait of youth. It exposes, in almost equal parts, the cruelty and compassion of teenagers. The coming of age novel has been done so many times before, and will be done many times again, but fortunately, Dermont has something new to add. Some of the best moments come in the last pages, where the meaning of the title is revealed, and Jason is able to make peace with his mistakes and the mistakes of others. It is not a perfect novel, but stick with it to the end, you won’t be disappointed.

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