Amber Dermont’s The Starboard Sea follows Jason Prosper, who is beginning his senior year at Bellingham (a last chance high school for children of wealthy parents – who have failed to thrive elsewhere). When Jason begins school for the term, he is struggling in his grief at the death of his best friend and sailing partner, Cal, and his family’s vague disapproval of his behavior and their inconvenience. He is invited to join the sailing team at Bellingham (his father’s money pretty much guarantees him a place), but quickly destroys his chance for a spot on the team, and the opportunity to easily fit in among the school’s in-crowd, through a reckless act. Still struggling to get his bearings in a new place, Jason continues to cope with the sorrow of being left behind and his own capacity for doing damage.
Dermont has written a detailed and moving account of a coming of age fraught with tension. Though money isn’t issue for Jason Prosper, he isn’t exempt from the usual suspects – family instability, peer pressure, bullying, sexual awakening and exploration – haunting adolescents. Dermont’s portrayal of boarding school life is on the harrowing side. Kids are reckless, hazing is the norm, and administrators are lax and easily bribed by funding for pet projects and new buildings. There isn’t much redeeming about many of the characters, but you can see how they make the choices they do given the cut-throat environment of the school, and their own homes and upbringings. While ruminating on his losses, Jason attempts bonding, to mixed results, with similarly vulnerable outcasts; Aidan – the much rumored and troubled daughter of a bohemian actress, and Chester – a talented tennis player, and one of the few minorities in attendance at Bellingham.
Sailing plays a big part in this novel. It structured Jason’s most important friendship, and is the way he organizes and navigates his life. The language and attention given to sailing is detailed and, at times, technical. It’s a big part of the plot but also strangely non-essential, and it threatens to subsume it initially. I got a little restless reading the sailor-y parts, non-sailor that I am. Luckily the writing is atmospheric and beautiful, and the pace picks up as the novel moves past the set-up stages. The Starboard Sea is a sad novel, but a satisfying one. Its observations on class, sexuality, race, and one teens attempt to navigate the fray are astute and painfully realistic. Recommended.
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