Amber Dermont (contributor to Anne Patchett's The Best American Short Stories 2006) makes her novel-length debut with The Starboard Sea, a vividly emotional imagining of a troubled teenage boy confronting the corruption of his privileged world in the months surrounding the stock market crash of 1987.
Jason Prosper and his almost-doppelganger Cal were once the pride of exclusive school Kensington Prep with their good looks, stellar competitive sailing record, and seemingly unbreakable bond, but the secret of their life together resulted in Cal's suicide and Jason's expulsion. When his womanizing father endows Bellingham Academy, the East Coast boarding school for rich kids with bad records, with a generous donation to secure Jason's acceptance for his senior year, Jason finds himself adrift, his grief over Cal leaving him unable to return to sailing or make sense of life. When he becomes close to a beautiful, free-spirited girl named Aidan, Jason thinks his prayers have been answered, even though their budding relationship brings up familiar confusion about his sexuality. However, following a hurricane's landfall at Bellingham, events unfold that drag Jason into the dark side of prep school hazing and leave him wondering if Aidan might share Cal's suicidal tendencies.
While Dermont ties an impressive knot of themes including grief, hazing, sexuality, racism, and the effects of privilege and lack of parental involvement, the voice of her dynamic main character steals the show and flaunts Dermont's beautiful prose. So immersed is Jason in the world of competitive sailing that even when a near-tragedy frightens him into giving up the sport, he continues to relate to life in nautical terms. His love of sailing allows Dermont to make ample use of nautical metaphor, such as describing Jason's attempt to remain unnoticed at school as not creating an apparent wind--the wind that results when natural wind meets the force created by a boat sailing with or against it. Jason's unstoppable draw toward the sea peppers the story with beach visits chock full of lyrical imagery, the poetry of the ocean and the closeness it fosters between those who share it.
Referencing then-popular musicians like Iggy Pop and R.E.M as well as then-current events such as Baby Jessica's rescue, Dermont grounds her story firmly in its time period. While mature teenage readers may connect with this story, the nostalgia value and sophisticated writing style will surely find appreciation from children of the 1980s as Dermont weds the zeitgeist of the materialistic decade to the pain and beauty of adolescence. A satisfying blend of wit, scandal, and reflection, The Starboard Sea will quell readers' cravings for substantive and enjoyable fiction.
***A section of this review originally appeared in Shelf Awareness Readers Edition. Sign up for this free and awesome newsletter at http://www.shelf-awareness.com for the latest news and reviews! This review refers to an ARC provided by Shelf Awareness.***