A few of my weird reading interests combined in The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont – Maine (I blame my obsession with New England on John Irving); boarding schools (it all began with Enid Blyton’s The Naughtiest Girl series); and all things preppy (preppy might have hit its stride in the eighties but I haven’t moved on – crew, lacrosse and popped collars still thrill me).
The Starboard Sea is the story of Jason Prosper, a rich kid whose world includes Manhattan penthouses, Maine summer estates, old boy prep schools and exclusive sailing clubs. It begins with Jason being dropped, rather unceremoniously by his father, at the door of Bellingham Academy – a ‘last stop’ prep-school for kids who have mucked up everywhere else.
“My mother was still on vacation in Maine. It occurred to me that the only soul in all of New York City I would miss would be my doorman.”
Jason is left to settle into a new school and to come to terms with the suicide of his best friend and sailing partner, Cal. Jason soon meets Aidan, a fellow student with her own troubled past. Their friendship grows but just as Jason is beginning to make sense of all that had happened at his previous school, tragedy strikes.
I don’t want to get into ranty-parent-mode but (as a parent) there were so many aspects of this storyline that were tough reading, particularly teens coming to terms with their sexuality, bullying and suicide. And here’s the difficult bit – Jason was dealing with these big issues alone. Despite being surrounded by people day and night, the camaraderie of boarding school is artificial and he is in fact so, so alone… *parent-mode here* It’s heart-breaking and brutal.
This book made me scared for my own boys. I’m not concerned about sexuality (whatever makes them happy) and there’s no chance of lonely months at boarding school in their future. No, it’s all about peer pressure. Pressure to participate in pranks, pressure to drink and take drugs, pressure to engage in relationships (or not), pressure to fit in. That’s what scares me.
Although I’ve painted a depressing picture, there was so much I loved about this book. In particular, Dermont’s delicate descriptions of sailing and the sea. I also enjoyed the relaitevely complex storyline – there are lots of layers that are carefully linked.
I must mention the reference in the book to Herman Melville simply because it’s the third book I’ve read in as many months with links to Melville – isn’t that weird?! (Or perhaps not, given my penchant for stories set in New England… The other two books were The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach and Tigers in Red Weather by Lisa Klaussman).
Picking food to match a book is generally my little bit of fun. Certainly some books lend themselves to a particular dish because of the place they are set in or events that take place. However, in the case of The Starboard Sea, a tangerine has poignant significance, so try this book with a decadent trifle of Angel Food Cake and Honey Tangerine Bavarian.
4/5 Dermont avoids being weighted down in ‘teenage angst’ and delivers a coming-of-age story that is tough and true.