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The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont
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The Starboard Sea

by Amber Dermont

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It's 1987 and Jason Prosper is beginning his senior year at a new prep school, Bellingham - otherwise known as the island of misfit toys, where kids go when they get kicked out of their first (or second) boarding school. Jason's best friend, roommate, and sailing partner, Cal, committed suicide, but there's no therapy or counseling - Jason will have to find his way on his own. At Bellingham he keeps to himself until he meets Aidan, a girl from California. But when tragedy strikes a second time, how is Jason to feel?

The author evokes the privileged, insular prep school atmosphere and the late 1980s wealth and crash skillfully, and Jason is a compelling character with believable flaws and little guidance. The wealthy, removed parents in the book have high expectations so the kids are afraid of failure, but rarely allowed to feel the consequences if they do fail or make mistakes. Jason gets some advice from his sailing coach (who is only in his early 20s himself) and a teacher, but little from his family.

See also: Looking for Alaska by John Green, Ordinary People by Judith Guest

Quotes

[Students at Bellingham] We weren't bad people, but having failed that initial test of innocence and honor, we no longer felt burdened to be good. In some ways it was a relief to have fallen. (5)

We all had our own private humiliations and heartbreaks. The trick was pretending we didn't. (17)

"You learn more about yourself when you're afraid."
It had never occurred to me that being scared or unsure could be good, useful, even. (Coach Tripp and Jason, 70)

My dad had explained how the dirt and grime from trains and smokers obscured the once shimmering stars [on the ceiling of Grand Central Terminal]. "Used to look like heaven," he'd say. "Now it's just filth." (93)

"It's like hating the color yellow," she'd say, "and living in a golden age." (Aidan, 98)

"I thought that thing was the future."
"Yeah, well," Reigel said, "the future is full of things that don't work." (Jason and his brother, re: car phones, 125)

"The stars are like a map to sailors, right?"
"Yeah," I said. "And they're also a clock."
"A star clock," Aidan said. "I like that." (151)

"The best thing about taking a sight reading is that you have to forget all that stuff about the earth revolving around the sun. In order to stay on course, a sailor has to believe that the universe revolves around him. You and your boat are the fixed point. The heavenly bodies just rise and fall circling around you." (152)

It was possible that in order for me to become an adult, I needed to learn to be alone with my grief. (167)

I kept losing the best pieces of myself. (182)

I no longer believed in second chances....For me, all of the second chances I'd been given had created opportunities for me to tell another lie about myself. (225)

Aidan had said that the two most important things in life were knowing what you wanted and understanding what you were afraid of. "Fear and desire," she said. "That's the key." (243)

["The starboard sea"] "It means the right sea, the true sea, or like finding the best path in life." (Cal to Jason, 274)

"I used to believe having a good memory meant being able to remember everything in perfect detail. Now I believe having a good memory means being able to selectively forget. It's not what I'll remember...it's what I'll forget that matters." (retiring teacher Mr. Guy to Jason, 282)

Aidan knew what it was like to have your love turn to rage, to hurt the one person that you cared for above all others. (297) ( )
  JennyArch | Jul 14, 2015 |
Several years ago I read Sailing Alone Around the World by Joshua Slocum. I was impressed by his windswept tale of a trip of more than 46,000 miles over three years at the age of fifty, a solo circumnavigation. I mention this because that book is one of several that plays a supporting role in a first novel by Amber Dermont, a coming of age tale The Starboard Sea. Perhaps the teenager in this story will develop some of the maturity and courage that Joshua Slocum demonstrated. This is only the start for him, a jumping-off point for what is yet to be.

The story begins in 1987, when 18-year-old Jason Prosper begins a final year at Bellingham, a third-rate private school for well-off delinquents. Confused about his sexuality, he's alternately self-absorbed and self-aware. He does not seem to fit in with most of his peers during his periods of introspection which are some of the best parts of the novel. The author is successful in slowly developing Jason's background through these moments and the flashbacks to his life at his previous school with his best friend Cal. Dermont is a confident stylist, musical and alliterative. Jason has an older brother, a forerunner for avaricious bankers who discusses "turning their Renoir into an ATM", which is disconcerting because it sounds like something a wealthy philistine might conceivably say. Though Jason is not without faults he appears favorable in comparison. In addition to the coming of age theme there is an overlay of criticism of the privileged life of the boys and girls at the school. because the starboard sea of the title is "the right sea, the true sea … the best path in life". Dermont's strongest writing describes sailing but when Prosper competes in a championship, she sensibly resists a dramatic sporting climax. Instead, the skewed sense of loyalty that his unhappy parents instill in him suggests that, although Prosper is committed to breaking the cycle of inherited misery, he will never entirely escape the small world of the entitled. The economic news of the late eighties is ever present in the background.

Prosper confronts prejudice and corruption, befriending Bellingham's lone black student and investigating the fate of an enigmatic girl, Aidan, who was on the verge of becoming the friend that might replace his best friend Cal from his previous school. There is a certain amount of tragedy in Jason's life that must also be experienced before he can come to terms with his personal destiny. The idea that "sailing is the art of asking questions" reflects the novel's unresolved conundrums: fathers, present and absent, are a source of angst, so are we better off with or without them? And do Dermont's upper-class grotesques live with too little or too much shame? Along with the image of the ocean, the night sky becomes an indicator with stars as symbolic guides for life. The ocean is also the potential source for answers because the starboard sea of the title is "the right sea, the true sea … the best path in life". Dermont's best writing describes sailing but when Prosper competes in a championship, she sensibly resists a dramatic sporting climax. It is this writing that elevates the novel to the class with those like John Knowles' A Separate Peace that capture both the magic and the angst of developing the foundation for a life that is yet to be. ( )
  jwhenderson | Jul 5, 2015 |


Loved this book so much. Like almost any book based at boarding schools but this one is realistic yet subtle with a great lead protagonist. ( )
  lincolnpan | Dec 31, 2014 |
This is an interesting juxtaposition to The Secret History, which I finished reading just before I started The Starboard Sea. Both novels are concerned with issues of identity, shame, guilt, and violence both overt and subtle. Both are also examinations of how one devises his/her moral compass -- or sextant, in this case -- but whereas the former is obvious and tense, the latter unfolds so subtly. Dermont's voice, sparsely elegant and lush without being overwrought, suits the subject matter and plot perfectly. I enjoyed how moments from scenes that already happened would find their way into later narrative, as opposed to a straight, chronological-only style of storytelling. What a debut! I look forward to future Dermont stories. ( )
  cygnoir | Sep 10, 2013 |
I came close to reading 30% of this book and then I just got bored (I read those 80+ pages over one week -- that's slow progress for me). While I am interested in the backstory of both Jason and Aiden -- what happened to them to bring both to Bellingham? -- there wasn't enough to KEEP me interested. First, I don't care about sailing or the wind. I'm sure sailing and the wind symbolizes SOMETHING, but there are other books I want to read more. And sure I could keep slogging my way through the book, but instead I'll just read the reviews with spoilers and move onto to a book that holds my attention for more than one page at a time.

Sure it may not seem fair to rate it when I didn't finish it, but here's the thing: I gave it enough to know that it wasn't my cup of tea. It's an OK read, but I didn't like it enough to keep going: thus 2 stars.

I'm actually quite disappointed that I didn't like it more. The cover, the description, it made me think of A Separate Peace, but ASP kept my attention and this one simply did not. :( ( )
  melissarochelle | Apr 5, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 14 (next | show all)
This is not a strictly prep school story. Its secrets are not tacked on or contrived. It is a rich, quietly artful novel that is bound for deep water, with questions of beauty, power and spiritual navigation as its main concerns. The title refers not to the right side of a boat but to the right course through life, and the immense difficulty of finding and following it.
 
"Readers already intrigued by prep school, sailing, or bildungsromans may be interested, but most should wait for Dermont's next books. "
added by Christa_Josh | editLibrary Journal, Travis Fristoe (Nov 1, 2011)
 
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Epigraph
I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast for I intend to go in harm's way. -- Captain John Paul Jones
You know what you did. You know you know what you did. No one is hearing your ornate confession. -- Dan Chiasson, "Stealing from Your Mother"
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Devastated by the suicide of his prep-school roommate and disdaining the trappings of his affluent Manhattan life, Jason transfers to another school and bonds with a troubled classmate whose subsequent death compels Jason to uncover the truth, in a tale set against a backdrop of the 1987 stock market collapse.… (more)

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