Set in 1987 against the backdrop of the New England coast, The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont is an engaging and heartbreaking look into the life of a boarding school student who struggles to accept the past, the future without his best friend, Cal and his burgeoning sexuality. Even though the novel centers on the lives of teenagers at an elite boarding school for troubled youth, both older teens and adults will enjoy the novel.
About her debut novel, Dermont says:
"When I began writing, The Starboard Sea, I knew I wanted to explore the lives of young people who have been damaged by their own unchecked privilege. I've always enjoyed novels that focus on the trials of adolescence especially ones set in boarding schools -- with all that freedom and minimal supervision, someone is bound to get hurt."
She continues: "Typically the schools in these novels are portrayed as noble institutions of higher learning. In my experience that's not always the case."
After being kicked out of his former school for cheating on a test, protagonist, Jason Prosper, is a wealthy and privileged young man who has just been enrolled in Bellingham Prep. But underneath the cheating and scandal lies far greater troubles and emotional baggage for Jason.
"As I started to create the world of Bellingham Academy, I thought it might be fun and revealing to write about a campus that catered to the students who'd been kicked out of the best, most elite schools. I wanted to follow the misadventures of bright kids who rebel against their own privilege and wrongly believe that their only avenue for self-discovery is self-destruction ... What the students at Bellingham quickly realize is that the only punishment for their rebellion is just more privilege. The main character of my novel, Jason Prosper, is different."
Not only does Jason have to attend yet another boarding school with rich kids he has been surrounded by his whole life, he's also dealing with the death of Cal who committed suicide. Cal was everything in Jason's' world -- his roommate, his sailing partner, his confidant, and much more. Throughout the course of the novel, the reason behind his death is slowly revealed in flashbacks and through Jason's narrative.
Even though Cal is deceased, he is the heart of the story and Jason doesn't know how to cope without him. The way Dermont beautifully portrays his story, it feels as if he will suddenly come to life and walk into the scene.
Dermont discusses him this way:
"Cal, Jason's best friend and sailing partner, is nearest to my heart. I was drawn to his playful humor and easy confidence. When the novel starts, Cal has already died. He exists purely in Jason's memory. The reader comes to know Cal through the stories Jason shares with Aidan. Jason's memories of Cal are so strong that Aidan can immediately feel and understand the pain of Jason's loss."
At Bellingham, Jason starts falling in line with his classes. He joins the sailing team and begins hanging out with a motley group of students whose main priority is getting into trouble by hazing, partying, doing drugs and having sex. Jason, as well as the other students in the book, has been sent to Bellingham to deal with their issues. However, as the school turns a blind eye to their antics, Jason and his so-called friends rebel against the system while trying to figure out their place in society.
Jason is a lonely character who eventually finds solace in another misunderstood character named Aidan, a quirky, free-spirited girl who beats to her own drummer, but has skeletons of her own. Like Jason, Aidan is likable, easy to relate to and charismatic and genuinely cares for Jason, unlike the other kids who are a bad influence.
But Jason wants more than anything to be accepted by his peers. He wants to be noticed by the people who are at the most distance in his life, his family. Jason's parent's marriage is crumbling at his feet, his older brother is a stranger to him, but most of all Jason is extremely confused by his homosexual relationship with Cal.
There's a rawness and intensity to Jason, says Dermont, that enables him to connect with Aidan, as well as:
"Early on, I had a very clear sense of Jason Prosper's voice, his humor and his interiority. I tried to hone in on the particular and distinct details that only he would notice. He's a sailor and so it was important for me to have a physical understanding of his body and strength. I had to know Jason from the inside out"
The Starboard Sea is also filled with '80s references from newspapers to pop culture icons. When I asked why she decided to set her book during the 80s and not contemporary times, Dermont says:
"Sometimes, in order to write about the present, you need to focus on the past. The 1980s were a strangely literary decade with larger than life characters and fantastic plot twists. Depending on where you stood, Ronald Reagan was either the evil overlord or the second coming. Nearly all of the economic and political crises we're mired in now can be traced back to this period's decadence and deregulation.1987 was an especially significant year."
As Dermont relays: 1987 marked the watershed moment in the culture wars when Reagan finally said the word AIDS in public to the Robert Chambers trial and the rescue of Baby Jessica, the novel discusses all of these events, including the stock market collapse. She goes on to explain:
"The teenagers who came of age during the excesses of the 1980s now find themselves running the show. In many ways, the conflicts and concerns of 1987 are the conflicts and concerns of 2012 and the people who are supposed to address these issues are products of the very culture they need to reform."
The novel also features several brilliant sailing scenes that make the ocean and the sport come to life for the reader and for Jason, who lives and breathes being on a boat with the wind at his back.
"Lucky for me, I grew up in New England and was able to draw on my love of the water. So much of the history of New England is connected to sailing and I wanted to capture the experience of being young and fearless and in command of the wind navigation."
A hurricane is also part of the story. It has devastating consequences and forces some, but not all, in the story to reevaluate their lives and what's really important.
Jason learns the value of true friendship and how both Cal and Aidan are very similar in scope and themes. Dermont's writing style flows with a sense of calm, but then surprisingly grabs hold of you like the turbulent changing tide of a brewing storm. Readers will find the Jason's teen angst and story is reminiscent of Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye. If you are a fan of boarding school novels, The Starboard Sea does not disappoint.
One thing, Dermont hopes readers will take away with them after reading The Starboard Sea is this:
"Writers are lucky to have readers and grateful for the time and care their readers take to enter the world of their novels. I think the best a writer can hope for is that a reader feels an intimate connection with the characters and story. I know that when I read, I try to suspend all judgment and empathize with the choices the characters make."
She continues: "Jason Prosper has made terrible mistakes and caused irreparable harm but he has no choice but to go on, clear-eyed and eager to change."
The Starboard Sea was published on February 28th. Pick up a copy and enjoy!