From Jane Eyre to The Chocolate War to The Outsiders fiction has explored the hurts and the conceits of that most vulnerable and brutal species of humans: the teenager. And from A Separate Peace to Never Let Me Go to the Harry Potter series, readers are flock to the romance of that exclusive teenage club to which most of us never belonged: the prep school. One of American literature's most iconic characters, Holden Caulfield - newly-expelled from Pencey Prep as The Catcher in the Rye opens - has been the defining voice of teenage angst and rebellion since the novel's publication in 1951.
I was a senior in high school in 1987, the same year Amber Dermont sets her debut novel The Starboard Sea. Yet my high school culture was far removed from the novel’s Bellingham Academy, the last resort of prep schools for New England's elite. Bellingham is where the one percent sends its misfits- the academically- and disciplinary-challenged, the wounded, the angry, the racially-distinct; these are the kids who can't make it or who aren’t accepted at the more prestigious institutions.
The Starboard Sea is narrated by Jason Prosper, whose voice brings to mind Holden Caufield’s ennui and Nick Carraway’s moral wrestling. Cal, Jason’s best friend, sailing partner and roommate committed suicide the previous school year. Jason carries the weight of his friend’s death, but hopes to disappear into one last school year at one last school, so he transfers to Bellingham Prep. Jason knows many of these students already. They grew up in the same Manhattan highrises, sailed against each other at yacht club races, skied with their families during winter holidays in Gstaad, their parents share art dealers and stockbrokers.
But Bellingham Prep offers Jason at least one fresh start: a friendship with Aidan, a reclusive, odd and beautiful girl from California. Aiden is a firefly and Jason takes great care with her, allowing their relationship to deepen into gentle romance. Both characters are wounded and elusive, harboring secrets as they explore one another’s vulnerabilities.
A hurricane interrupts the flow of Jason’s new life. In the wake of its destruction, Jason is forced to confront ghosts from the old life he is trying to forget and from the new he is trying to build.
The book is braced by two bookends: one, the bedrock of privilege represented by Bellingham and its spoiled denizens; the other, the shifting and precarious sea. As a skilled competitive sailor, Jason handles a sailboat and the sea with the dexterity and respect of a grown man. A rudder and sail seem to be among the few things in life he can control, but even then, he can err or soar at the whim of chance.
We approach a novel of late adolescence looking for ourselves in the characters, to find clues that explain why we didn't fit in or to recapture the time where we shone the brightest. In truth, there is very little of the backgrounds and lifestyles of these young people to which I can relate. They have a level of sophistication and a sense of entitlement that only abiding wealth can create. These are young men and women from a tribe of bluebloods who winter in St. Barth's, summer in the Hamptons and who are confident of their admission to the Ivy Leagues despite their mediocre grades.
But this is not a story that allows the less-economically secure reader to become a cynical voyeur into the life of clichéd “poor little rich” kids. Despite its manicured and precious setting, the novel follows themes common to most teenagers: implosive first loves, shifting loyalties, emerging selves, social isolation and confraternity.
Dermont’s writing is graceful and elegant. She captures the pain and embarrassment of adolescence as well as teenage silliness and self-absorption through Jason’s reserved, aching voice.
Despite the cultural markers - the stock market crash of October 1987, the collective held breath while the nation awaited Baby Jessica’s fate after her tumble down a well and the pop music references - I didn’t have a sense of late 80’s culture as I experienced it. Yet Dermont’s portrayal of this pivotal time in our social and personal development is timeless. There are few ages as exhilarating and devastating as seventeen.