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The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont

Published by St. Martin's Press on February 28, 2012

The Starboard Sea tries to do many things and doesn't fully succeed at any of them. Amber Dermont's assured writing style kept me reading to the end, but her high quality prose is largely wasted on a contrived plot. I made no intellectual or emotional connection to the story or any of its characters. The novel's first half is predictable and dull while the rest is only moderately interesting, ultimately leading to the sort of blockbuster revelations that are designed to shock. Unfortunately, since Dermont didn't convince me that the story or characters were real, the revelations did not have their intended effect. To the extent that the novel illustrates the obvious truth that people with money and power often escape the consequences of their bad behavior, the lesson is less than profound.  I give Dermont credit, however, for avoiding a happy ending that might have pleased readers while making the story even less realistic.

Having been expelled from Kensington Prep, Jason Kilian Prosper spends his eighteenth birthday driving his father's Cadillac to Bellingham Academy, a school that will happily forgive his transgressions provided his father contributes to the school's building fund. Before the sun sets, Jason has a moment with a beautiful girl who is staring into the ocean. The reader knows that Jason is destined to meet her again and that she will play a significant role in the novel.

Prosper is recovering (or not) from the death of his best friend and Kensington roommate Cal. Prosper feels guilt about certain circumstances involving Cal, the sort of machination authors create to add emotional heft to a character. When Aidan (the beautiful girl) says she'd like to be a photographer's light meter so she would "know for certain whether people were giving off light or taking light away," the author is again laboring to imbue a character with depth when, in the real world, Aidan's audience would fall down laughing at her preposterous comment. Only infrequently does any of the dialog in The Starboard Sea have the ring of realism.

In addition to being self-absorbed, Prosper is self-aware to a degree I didn't find credible. Teenage boys do not describe their own behavior as "careless in the most deliberate way." They do not say "I slept well that night because someone had been kind to me." They do not tell their friends at the end of the school year, "We've taken good care of one another." A teenage boy might say "I cared too much about everything" as a means of impressing a girl, but Prosper actually means it. For that matter, teenage boys do not look at a beautiful girl and think that her face has "a quiet authority" that says "I am not to be put on display" and they do not worry about the pressure prep school girls might feel "to pigeonhole themselves." Prosper's introspection and relentless self-analysis quickly becomes overbearing. This is a coming of age novel about a kid who already thinks like a forty-year-old.

A huge error of logic becomes apparent in the novel's final pages (I can't reveal it without spoiling one of the revelations) that shouldn't have made it past the first edit. The novel is otherwise cohesive and internally consistent.

Devotees of Hollywood gossip and/or sailing might appreciate this novel. Prosper loves to sail (except when he hates sailing) and knows all there is to know about wind, while Aidan knows more than most people need to know about Robert Mitchum. Fans of debutantes and old money prep schools might also be fascinated by the story Dermont tells. I felt distant from it; nothing drew me into Prosper's world. Although I'm normally a sucker for literary allusions, the attempt to draw parallels between Prosper and Herman Melville failed to resonate. Equally silly is an earnest discussion of racial sensitivity, complete with allusions to Hemmingway and Samuel "Chip" Delaney (a family friend of the novel's only black character).

I admired Dermont's writing style and appreciated her ability to set a scene. Readers who can set aside their skepticism about the authenticity of the story and characters, readers for whom strong writing is enough, will likely enjoy the novel more than I did. I hope Dermont writes another novel, one that is less contrived than The Starboard Sea, because I would like to give her another chance.


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