TFT Review of ‘The Starboard Sea’ by Amber Dermont
The eighteen-year-old narrator, Jason Prosper, is an upper class, old money upper East-sider who “rarely ventures below Central Park South,” whose bedroom looks out over the Reservoir, and in whose living room there hangs a portrait of his great-great grandmother by John Singer Sargent.
Jason is a skilled and obsessive sailor with a family home in Maine, a lad blessed with a low-key, modestly-metaphorical, observant and refreshingly unsnarky voice. You start out by liking him and, within just a few pages, you are feeling for him; you desperately want Jason to succeed in the aftermath of the suicide of his best friend, Cal, and the resultant transfer to Bellingham Academy, a catchall kind of place for “thieves, sluts and dope fiends,” i.e., private school rejects.
How magnificently Amber Dermont goes about touching every single preppy base imaginable, from khakis and boat shoes without socks, to stolen bottles of high-end brand liquor, to walking into the dining hall on the first day of school as a “new boy” yet “knowing everybody already,” to the minutest idiosyncracies of accessorizing (“grandfather’s antique Piaget” on one wrist, “embroidery floss bracelets” on the other), to the boarders’ blatant disdain of day students and “faculty kids,” to the obligatory off-campus smoking and drinking hangout, to the old-school teacher who calls his boys “gentlemen,” and on and on.
“We all had our private humiliations and heartbreaks,” Jason remarks, “The trick was pretending we didn’t.” That is what makes The Starboard Sea so immediately satisfying – the sense that the boy telling the story empathizes with his peers even as he manages to maintain a razor’s edge stance of wariness.
That is, until he meets Aidan, a self-possessed, singularly solitary, tall, unconventionally
beautiful girl. At which point, the fissures begin to appear in the narrative poise. As the couple are drawn together, very slowly, step by step, memories of Jason’s tumultuous earlier life with Cal resurface from the depths of the ocean of memory, intercut with and interrupting the momentum of Aidan’s unfolding story.
The tension is unbearable and erotic, borne forward by the two young friends and their common affinity for the New England seacoast, the elemental winds and waves that accompany their long walks in the sand and clandestine forays into town.
Jason is surrounded by guys — Race, Taze, Kriffo, Stuyvie – (you can’t have a preppy book
without such nicknames!) who, in their guardedness, act more like competitive acquaintances; they are always provoking and teasing each other, because it is axiomatic that the more you like someone the more you must make fun of him.
“Girlfriend, boyfriend,” Jason asks Aidan, “Which do you prefer?” The most intriguing layer
in the palimpsest of this seductive novel is its inquiry into the textures of sexual identity. The
probing, the feeling, the pressing against another’s body; the hunger and the anxiety that cry out to be calmed – at the height of all this fervor is a boy who once loved another boy, and a girl who once loved a woman.
The denouement has reassuring elements to keep the novel grounded in the tradition in a good way – who ends up with whom, who graduates, who triumphs in the final regatta. These touches, like grace notes in a gilded era oil painting, enhance the luminosity of The Starboard Sea.
The world of privilege so artfully delineated by Amber Dermont is capacious enough to include more suffering than even a conscientious reader can tolerate at times.
All the more reason to savor this counterintuitive, brave tale.
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