x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

The Starboard Sea: bored at boarding school

Amber Dermott's novel about a wealthy student who uses sailing to cope with tragedy lacks authenticity.

The Starboard Sea
Amber Dermont
St Martin's Press
New York
The Starboard Sea Amber Dermont St Martin's Press New York Dh80

Amber Dermont's The Starboard Sea is proof positive that you can cobble together a debut novel about a handsome, rich, brooding teenage hero and his glamorous American boarding school friends - and throw in a suicide, a murder and a hurricane - and still be boring.

The year is 1986, the boarding school is Bellingham Academy on the Massachusetts coast. The narrator is Jason Prosper, scion of old wealth. His penthouse overlooking Central Park is adorned by a John Singer Sargent portrait of his great-great grandmother. He has been expelled from the upmarket Kensington School and consigned to Bellingham in his senior year.

"Most of us who found ourselves in Bellingham had been kicked out of better schools. Rich kids who'd gotten caught, had been given a second chance, only to be caught again and then finally expelled. We weren't bad people, but having failed that initial test of innocence and honour, we no longer felt burdened to be good. In some ways it was a relief to have fallen ... Bellingham offered us sanctuary, minimal regulations and a valuable lesson: breaking rules could lead to more freedom. Because the school catered to thieves and dope fiends, it was understood that additional transgressions would be overlooked. If you could pay, you could stay."

Prosper's ostensible crime at Kensington was breaking the honour code by cheating during an exam. But the real reason for his expulsion was a scandal over which Prosper spends 40 pages coyly brooding over before letting the reader in on the secret: his roommate and best friend Cal, whom he had bonded with over a shared passion for sailing dinghies, had committed suicide.

Sadly, Dermont's impersonation of a male teenager fails in her dainty descriptions of their male beauty: "Cal and I looked alike ... We were sporty sailors, lean and lithe, not larded or buff. We walked with the same crooked swagger and low bent knees. Each of us had a cleft in our chin, a weakness in the muscle that we thought made us look tough."

The author reveals that Cal and Prosper's friendship had turned physical before their relationship was eventually rumbled by the latter's father. After that, Prosper gives his roommate the silent treatment and later still, Cal takes his own life.

At Bellingham, Prosper's new set of rich friends - Race, Taze, Kriffo, Stuyvie - are, without exception, witless oafs. They are fond of pranks, which would make you assume that at least once in a while one of these teenage rebels would say something funny. Alas, the reader has no such luck.

Race, whose family owns a nearby marina, does at least have the saving grace of being devoted to sailing and after Cal's death, Prosper goes out on the water with Race for a practice run, he at the helm, his companion at the foresail.

Throughout the book, nautical lore - reading winds and waves, celestial navigation, knot-making, the etymologies of "yacht" and "regatta" - are awkwardly sandwiched into the narration, as if to give this pastime some kind of mythical quality.

But the author, who is an associate professor of English and creative writing at Agnes Scott College in Georgia, fails to capture the physical thrills and terrors of sailing. Indeed, when Prosper capsizes the dinghy and Race nearly drowns, the whole episode feels flatter than the calmest of seas.

The sole bright point about Bellingham is that four years previously the academy had turned co-ed and Prosper soon encounters the novel's only intriguing character: Aidan.

Her Californian mother had been an "orange grove heiress" and Hollywood insider. In Aidan's room hangs a pair of Fred Astaire's dancing shoes and, we learn, one of her three possible fathers was the actor Robert Mitchum.

She, too, has transferred from a more prestigious school. Prosper's friends warn him that she is "damaged goods" following the violent conclusion of her romance with her married art teacher. She is tall and thin, sharp-featured, with a mop of curly red hair, an eccentric dress sense, a mordant wit and a secretive air.

As their friendship grows, Prosper and Aidan steal away from the rest of the school and retreat to a locked reading room where Prosper plays the piano for Aidan and she teaches him about poetry. Slowly they reveal more and more about themselves to each other, culminating in a night of confessions aboard a beached yacht that has been hauled ashore before a forecasted hurricane comes crashing in.

This turns out to be their last night as a couple, which they spend wrapped romantically in "silk sails" (no sails are made of silk). And yet, annoyingly, the author refuses to simply tell us exactly what happened that night, preferring instead to dribble out the details piecemeal.

The next day, Prosper takes off with his elder brother Riegel in his Jaguar to run some financial errands. A senior at Princeton, Riegel is part of a buccaneering band of computer warriors who will soon cause the 1987 stock market crash. That night there is supposed to be a party at Race's beachfront mansion but Prosper decides to return to school and sleeps through the storm. Four days later, he watches Sikorsky helicopters winch away three stranded yachts from the beach. Pinned beneath one of these is Aidan's crushed body.

The official cause of her death is ruled as suicide and the dean and headmaster produce a suicide note for Aidan's mother who arrives from California. Inevitably, Prosper falls into more despair.

"Though I resisted the thought, I knew it was possible that Aidan had killed herself. I wanted to believe she hadn't. I feared that she had. I wondered what sadness might have convinced her to walk into the water. Wondered if it was the same sadness that had compelled Cal. I couldn't help but compare Cal's and Aidan's deaths. Together they were like a pair of binary stars, two lights so close and so bright they blended into one."

But through a series of long and raucous parties - the Head of the Charles rowing race at Harvard, parents' weekend, the Halloween dance, the Tender Trophy Regatta, the commencement dance - it slowly dawns on Prosper, through clumsy clues dropped by his friends, that all is not what it seems.

Prosper resigns himself to the fact that the rich never pay and ends his tale with more sloppy sentimentality about stars:

"I wanted to sail under our shattered constellation. Aidan and Cal, my fellow privateers. The two of them giving off more light, more warmth than I deserved. Cal would teach Aidan how to work the lines, her red hair fiery in the moonglow. She would whisper to Cal how sorry I was. Convince him to forgive me. It was only because of Aidan that I had begun to forgive myself, and only because of Cal that I had learned to take care of Aidan. The three us part of some larger whole."

James Eckardt is a former editor at The National and the author of eight books including Singapore Girl: A Memoir.