The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont
Despite being a junior and an English major at Agnes Scott, I had still somehow never taken a class with Amber Dermont until this semester. I’m in her Intro to Creative Writing class, and it’s been very interesting. As I’m an English Literature major rather than an English Creative Writing major (I teasingly refer to myself as “a real English major” to my creative writing friends; God bless their patience), I had no idea that she had a forthcoming book until I saw her name on NetGalley. Ah, I thought, this should be illuminating. And that’s how we end up here, folks.
The Starboard Sea, set in the 1980s, follows Jason Prosper, a wealthy New England teen. After the suicide of his best friend and sailing partner Cal, Jason has transferred to Bellingham, where the elite of New England dump their troubled children. There, Jason meets Aidan, a girl with a dark past. As the two begin a tentative friendship (or romance?) and Jason finishes off his senior year of high school, Jason begins to come to terms with Cal’s death and the corruption of the world around him.
I’ll be honest—this is not the sort of title I normally pick up. I picked it up because of the author. And I will admit that I was wary at first. I found “Prosper” as a surname to be a little too on-the-nose and I was concerned that Jason’s relationship with Aidan would fall too close to Manic Pixie Dream Girl territory for my taste. But as I read on, this isn’t a coming of age story or even a moving on from grief story. It’s a story about a boy who has been left behind. Jason is a follower, not a leader—even when eyeing his fellow classmates warily, he needs a structure to react positively or negatively towards. In his relationship with Cal, Jason was the slightly dimmer star. In his relationship with Aidan, he wants to protect her, but she’s still the more interesting person. The novel is ultimately about him realizing this truth about himself, as he sets out uncertainly into adulthood. That, I think, definitely sets The Starboard Sea apart from other books of a similar setting.
The writing itself is straightforward and efficient; there’s a focus on economy of detail and the things that Jason himself doesn’t focus on. For instance, he’s very intrigued by Aidan’s fatherless upbringing, but it’s only later in the novel that he realizes he’s been treating some other students unfairly. In fact, one of the main points of the novel is the casual cruelty of privileged youth, especially towards the end of the novel. While the pace is decent, the school days aspect of it recalls to me the languorous pace of, say, Harry Potter or The Magicians (these being the major school days novels that I’ve actually read). And I was still suspicious of Aidan and Jason’s relationship falling into cliched territory until about halfway through the novel, when Jason is jolted out of the idea that he can go on with life without fully processing what happened to Cal. After that, the novel picks up and develops an almost mysterious style, as Jason tries to solve… well, I shan’t spoil you.
I should point out that sailing constitutes a large part of the novel. Not an important part (well, to Jason—it’s important to the narrative), but a large one. Jason initially decides not to pursue sailing at Bellingham, but later becomes part of the team. HIs memories of Cal are all about sailing, and about how they essentially moved as one unit; while he can occasionally manage this with his new teammates, it’s not the same. Sailing no longer provides the leadership Jason needs to thrive, because it no longer provides Cal. I ultimately didn’t like Jason, but I did feel for him. The characterization is very internal and, at times, odd—there’s business with an almost cousin of his that, for me, borders on the grotesque. But Jason’s ultimate journey as a character kept me reading, even if I didn’t like him. Come to think of it, I don’t know if I liked any of the characters, except perhaps Chester, the lone black student at Bellingham. But they were still people. Sometimes, it’s not necessary to like characters; only to understand them.
Bottom line: The Starboard Sea takes material that could fall into the cliched—a boy moves on from the death of his friend with the help of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl—and focuses instead on Jason as a young man adrift without someone to guide him. If you’d like.
I read this book for free on NetGalley.
The Starboard Sea will be released on the 28th—tomorrow!