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Arden A. (Lady Lake, FL)
The Offspring of the Privileged
This first novel, by Vassar graduate Amber Dermont, is a coming of age story for the advantaged, as opposed to the disadvantaged. No bootstraps to be pulled up among these kids. There are butlers to do that. It is a very well-written story, with flowing prose, and the characters are well-depicted, if somewhat hard to love. The novel takes place at a New England Boarding School, the school of last resort for obnoxious, over-indulged rich kids who have been kicked out of every other boarding school.
Vicki H. (Greenwood Village, CO)
Not all smooth sailing
If this review sounds conflicted, it is. I enjoyed the book a lot, but have a hard time accepting the behavior of these kids, and accepting that adults running the schools can overlook or condone some of the acts, which border on evil. But then, it is fiction. There are any number of sub-plots here, and if you are a sailing enthusiast, there are fine descriptions of racing. Overall, The Starboard Sea is a good read with twists and turns and sexual identity issues. . .more than enough to keep you interested and guessing until the last page.
We take to the water with debut novelist Amber Dermont in The Starboard Sea, a coming-of-age novel that treats us to both the beauty of sailing and the dark side of privilege. I never tired of Dermont’s lovely homages to the wind; her protagonist Prosper reads it like prose: “You never sail with one wind. Always with three. The true, the created, and the apparent wind; the father, son, and Holy Ghost. The true wind is the one that can’t be trusted.” Indeed, as Dermont plays out the metaphor, we watch Prosper continually trim his sails to fit his new situation: he has been kicked out of one prep school (acting out after his best friend’s suicide), and is shifted to another for his senior year of high school. A few mysteries -- one of which may be murder -- keep us turning pages.
Roses with the thorns!
I grew weary, however, of the stereotypes; it seems every “prep school novel” comes ready-made with a cast of profligate, spoiled, rudderless rich kids. Prosper tells us, early on, “I felt myself becoming a cliché. The boy in trouble. The wealthy father. The school in need and willing to offer refuge.” Indeed, these rich boys commit horrendous acts with no conscience. The girls are glamour queens, naked beneath fur coats. (“It’s tanuki, silly. Japanese raccoon dog. Very rare. I should probably be arrested for wearing it.”) All are dissolute heirs to fortune (“…Yazid had a killer British accent, a closet full of bespoke Savile Row suits and a well-heeled cannabis habit.”) They have “prep school nicknames” (Taze, Kriffo, Race, Cakes). When the boys go to The Head of the Charles Regatta, they first cruise through a party in the penthouse of The Charles Hotel, grab Bloody Mary’s and speak to the president of Harvard, who begs one of the boys to “ditch Princeton and come to Cambridge.” They party in houses with famous paintings and sculptures, and with girls like Fernanda and Flavia, who “looked like the results of the world’s most successful genetic experiment. Each girl had caramel skin, full lips, bright blue eyes…” and “ …went to Le Rosey in Switzerland. The school of actual kings.” But even if you live in the rarefied air of East Coast and international prep schools, you will find it difficult to believe the sardonic, snappy repartee between characters is from the lips of teens. (When a white Mercedes and a driver show up for the boys, courtesy of Kriffo’s parents, Taze complains. “Thought your dad was sending a BMW. Not this pimpmobile.” Later, when the Mercedes is swapped for a black BMW, Cakes says “Nice car. Are we doing a drive-by shooting later?”)
In this episodic novel, we sail quickly from scene to scene, experiencing vandalism, awkward attempts at sex, shady Wall Street goings-on in the stock market crash of 1987, even a murder and its cover-up. I loved Dermont’s beautiful passages of wind, weather, and celestial navigation but lamented the overdrawn characters at the prep school. (Of course the dean is corrupt. Of course the local police can be bought off.) But there is enough here that is deft and skillful that when I see her name on another novel … I’ll bite.
The artistry and intellect of Amber Dermont has me feeling a bit out of my league when it comes to reviewing her work. Through “The Starboard Sea”, I experienced a gorgeous landscape of reflections, insights, observation, emotion and passion, accessed through a thorny path of cruelty, narcissism, confusion, cynicism and compromise. I found myself bursting out in laughter on many occasions and there was sudden and unexpected sobbing in one spot. I found myself repeatedly underlining remarkable sentences and paragraphs.
Grace W. (Corona del Mar, CA)
Sailing through the coming of age
More than a little of the book masterfully ushered me into the beauty of sailing; though I am not at all a mariner, the passion transferred very well. I found much of the coming-of-age sexuality of the young men in the story, understandably, unrecognizable. The ambivalence as to orientation explored, the private thoughts, the horsing around and jokes often seemed non-male and not real. It is a very ambitious thing for a woman to take on to be sure! Grief and loss are lovingly and artfully plumbed to their many-faceted depths. Being a widower, I found myself aching for the author as this level of understanding doesn’t come via any means other than mainline trauma. Interesting how very little there was to admire in all but a few living characters in the book (“The Lords of Discipline” comes to mind). The deceased Cal, anyone could have loved. I fell in love with Aidan. This is a book I will buy in hard cover and keep. I am confident that it is a novel that will yield more with another read… or two. Read the book and remember that I did warn you about the thorns!
Amber Dermont's novel is beautifully written and probably one edit shy of a 5 rating. The numerous characters came alive throughout the story. Many of the passages I committed to memory. You don't have to be a 17 year old boy to appreciate this extremely well-crafted story.
Ellen S. (Mundelein, IL)
The Starboard Sea
I am drawn to the coming of age genre, especially those such as this; in settings completely distinct from my own. While reading The Starboard Sea, I was oft reminded of A Separate Peace (john Knowles) - the frailty of human nature, unspeakable moral dilemmas, and ultimately, redemption. Having no sailing experience, I was unfamiliar with the nautical terms; and yet, I was mesmerized by the nautical metaphors of celestial navigation and the sea of tranquility. The inclusion of the lyrics of a favorite song of my own youth, Kodachrome (p. 54) struck a huge chord with me. I look forward to the film adaptation, which will be sure to come.
Corinne S. (Paoli, PA)
Th Starboard Sea
Bellingham Academy awaits Jason Kilian Prosper, a senior who experiences shame about his past at Kensington Prep, which gets him banished from the school, sexual confusion during a relationship with his best friend, Cal, and guilt about Cal’s suicide, hazing at a new boarding school, sailing competitions, love of Aidan, death, mystery, loyalty, betrayal, and the ability to forgive himself. Amber Dermont gives us a story that brings to mind The History Boys by Alan Bennett, or The Secret History by Donna Tartt. We are once again thrust into the life of a wealthy, exclusive, good ole boy private boarding school. Jason must navigate the dangerous waters of this new competition carefully even though he has a raw and damaged spirit. You will share his journey with the salty spray of sadness and depression and the warmth of sunny joy and love until Jason is able to find the right, true, starboard sea.
Rosanne W. (St Pete Beach, FL)
The Starboard Sea
Deeply flawed young people at a second rate prep school. The narrators "girlfriend" was just plain weird. Read the last few pages several times as the ending was so equivocal.
Andrienne G. (Azusa, CA)
Compelling coming-of-age tale set in the 80s
I don't know much about the 80s (I identify more with the 90s), so I can't comment on how accurate the way kids thought and felt. All I know is that I got this book yesterday and finished it yesterday. It was like Dead Poets Society without the idealism. I don't like boats or preppy kids, but somehow there was something intriguing about the story that made me want to keep reading. Of course, halfway through, I can figure out what the mystery was all about, but there were some startling surprises sprinkled throughout. There were also too many characters--more than I care to know about that made it a bit of a chore to read. Some characters weren't necessary and it only served to break the momentum of the book. The author was bold with some themes and she wrote about them in such a way that made me reread a few passages every now and then just to be sure I read it right. This book could be used in a book club for sure.