Amber Dermont’s first novel, The Starboard Sea, bears the cross-border cultural quirk of belonging to a particularly American sub-genre – the old-money prep-school melodrama – that has virtually no equivalent in Canadian literature. We are too deeply attached to our denial regarding inherited wealth, too indifferent to the vague emotional sufferings that apparently come with unimaginable privilege. In CanLit, the idea of the Upper Canada College set being the objects of deserved romance and existential sympathy is, in the country north of elite schools Groton and Choate, something close to absurd. Who is Canada’s Bret Easton Ellis? Exactly.
On its own, this observation may say little about Canada, and perhaps even less about the United States. But it does say something about reading The Starboard Sea, a novel that asks its readers in 2012 to swallow whole the mythology of the Poor Little Northeastern Preppie while offering little deviation from its stock characters nor surprises from its soapy plot in return.
As you would guess, The Catcher in the Rye haunts any story of this kind, and in this case it’s a ghost that presents unfavourable comparison with disheartening regularity. It reminds us of how astonishing Salinger’s achievement was in making Catcher a narrative with such universal appeal. Where his Holden Caulfield rendered undefined angst with idiosyncratic acuteness, Dermont’s mildly grieving hero, Jason Prosper, is merely a sad young man with lousy luck in need of some Upper East Side therapy and a time machine to deliver him out of Ordinary People.
When we meet Jason he (like Holden) finds himself at the end of the line of expulsions from fancier, more selective schools, dumped off by his chronically adulterous and emotionally cold father at Bellingham Academy. We learn that Jason recently lost his best friend, Cal, to suicide. And that Cal and Jason had been involved in a prep-school love that dare not speak its name for the months prior to his death and, only days earlier, the embarrassment of Jason’s father barging in to discover the two boys sharing the same single bed.
At Bellingham, Jason allows his mourning to be offset by Aidan, a chilly mystery of a girl (“She worried me, intrigued me”) as well as sailing, the sport Jason and Cal lost themselves together in. Both Aidan and sailing are attributed with mystical qualities, islands of honesty amidst all what Holden Caulfield would call phony in the world, as well as narratively convenient epiphany generators. If a hopeful reader suspects this piling up of yacht-and-blazer clichés will be yanked away to reveal a new take on this overly familiar material, the optimism proves to be without cause. This is no reinvention of the private school novel in the vein of Donna Tartt’s wildly involving The Secret History, though it, too, is nodded at in passing.
There is, however, evidence of Dermont’s genuine affection for her characters, and convincing familiarity with late-1980s preppie banter that lends authenticity to the insults and provocations of dining hall and quad. And as Jason’s boredom (Cal himself reasoned that this is why they called it “boarding school”) is occasionally interrupted by more bad news – a hurricane here, a dead lover there – we follow along contentedly enough, remembering our own adolescent boredoms, our own first broken hearts. Perhaps this is ultimately the attraction of prep-school lit: It allows us to indulge, again, in the dramas of youth we claimed to have invented ourselves.
The Starboard Sea is a sensitively felt first novel that is not without its nostalgic comforts and the entertainment of cushioned tragedies. There will undoubtedly be readers with soft spots for anything ivy-covered more than ready to forgive its generic characters and situations, though one suspects that most of those will hold American passports. The insatiable fetish for expensive prep school and hallowed college is uniquely theirs, the secrets of the midnight dorm room their most cherished. “Let me tell you about the very rich,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote. “They are different from you and me.” And he’s right, at least as far as the many novels he inspired, such as this one, are to be halfway believed.
Andrew Pyper is most recently the author of The Guardians.