David's Reviews > The Starboard Sea

The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont
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's review
Sep 23, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: arc, fiction, literary-fiction, read-in-2012, lgbt

I must admit upfront that the boarding school novel is my favorite comfort genre. The exploration and discovery of one's self, the often large and diverse casts of characters kept in close quarters to each other, the dramas and crises that arise from the petty to the life-changing- many of these novels serve as the type of character study that intrigues me the most. And an intensive character study is exactly what The Starboard Sea is, along with a look at the sometimes razor-thin border between close friendship and something more, how we are influenced in action by culture and surroundings, and the search to somehow find the best path for our lives, the titular "starboard (or right, with a slightly subverted meaning) sea."

Newly-18 Jason Prosper is dealing with the fallout from the suicide of his best friend, Cal, as well as a rocky patch in his parents' marriage when he arrives at Bellingham Academy, an upper-crust prep school mostly for rich kids who are just about on their last chance. Torn apart by the terrible thing he did to Cal just before his death and a desperate longing to have him back, Jason reaches Bellingham followed by quiet rumors of his past, specifically just what the closeness of his and Cal's relationship entailed (in this world, everyone knows everyone, and everyone's business- even the upper echelon of school officials).

Soon after arriving, Jason becomes infatuated with a girl harboring secrets of her own, the mysterious-though-not-really-MPDG Aidan. Sensing she shares a feel for his regrets, he quickly develops a close relationship with her and finds the only person in whom he feels he can truly confide. Complications abound, however, and after another harrowing event, Jason begins to evaluate the world around him and his place in it.

There is a lot to like here, but also some aspects that keep it from being truly exceptional in my eyes. Jason is characterized extremely well. Though he often tells us how he is older than his peers and has long lost his innocence (which is somewhat true), we see through his actions that he remains naive in other ways. For example, upon being told a soccer-playing MBA student's father is the "lawyer for Brazil," he wonders how the father could "be the lawyer for the entire nation" (pg 180 in the ARC).

Dermont is great at lightly satirizing the upper class and can turn many a phrase to wonder. Speaking about the competition between National Merit Scholars and rich kids, she (as Jason) points out that "none of (the) overachievers understood that their real competition for admission was not a genius with a 4.0 but a kid whose most glorious achievement was a recent second-place finish in an Egg McMuffin eating contest" (pg 178 in the ARC).

Jason is an intense competitive sailor and naturally the book abounds with sailing and water imagery and metaphor. As he tells Aidan regarding certain aspects of sailing that have no guidelines:

Like deciding when to reduce sail. Knowing when fast is fast enough. An overcanvased boat will strain and broach, rolling windward out of control. Reefing the main and reducing the headsail requires athleticism. Challenging a crew's unity and strength...The skipper commands the crew and forecasts the need for change, basing his decisions on intuition and experience. The art of interpretation.
(pg 86 in the ARC)

On the other hand, the book skews too overtly "literary" at times. Dialogue sometimes feels like the musings of a character rather than a person (e.g., much of the conversations between Aidan and Jason, or when Jason's brother Riegel says he smells of "seagulls and malfeasance"). Aidan serves as more of a literary device to push Jason along his soul-searching and ultimately fails to be fleshed out as a believable person. It's also surely no coincidence and a bit too cutesy that Nadia, a freshman whom Jason begins to see later in the novel, shares Aidan's name simply spelled backwards and serves as another device to show Jason what he *doesn't* want (not to mention another anagram girl, Diana, who confides deeply in Aidan and becomes a victim of the other rich kids' play).

So, in the end, a fairly solid 3.5 stars or so that I'll round to 4 for the purpose of Goodreads and thanks to a powerful, well played out ending. It's not earth shattering stuff, but fans of boarding schools or solid turns of phrase should give it a shot.

I received an ARC of this novel from the publisher
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Reading Progress

September 23, 2011 – Shelved
January 25, 2012 – Shelved as: arc
January 26, 2012 – Started Reading
January 26, 2012 –
page 73
23.55% "Excited to have an ARC of this - I love my boarding school novels. So far sort of reminds me of A Separate Peace if the homoerotic undertones between Gene & Finny became... more overt at some point"
January 28, 2012 –
page 209
67.42% "Dermont is clearly a strong writer...waiting to see where the rest of this goes though"
January 29, 2012 – Shelved as: fiction
January 29, 2012 – Shelved as: literary-fiction
January 29, 2012 – Shelved as: read-in-2012
January 29, 2012 – Shelved as: lgbt
January 29, 2012 – Finished Reading

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