Monday, September 17, 2012

The Formula Remixed

The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont is the story of a boy, Jason Prosper, who finds himself attending a third rate prep school, Bellingham Academy, and racing on their sailing team.  Bellingham is described as an island of misfit toys, only with wealthy but defective children as the inhabitants.  The students' defects generally relate to misdeeds that caused them to be asked to leave the other, less tolerant prep schools.  Whenever there is a novel about a boy attending a prep school, and especially if he is at his second or third prep school, Holden Caulfield comparisons are sure to surface.  In this case, I was looking for Jason to be like Holden, who was the main character in Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, but I found myself thinking of other books instead.

There are certain books set in prep schools, colleges or graduate programs, that involve a new comer to the school, and an elite clique of both men and women. The clique may or may not include the most popular people at the school, but to the new comer at least, the clique includes the most interesting people.  The new comer tries to become a part of the clique, and ultimately succeeds, only to realize that the clique is hiding a secret which the new comer would be better off not knowing.  Examples of books using this formula are Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, and The Hidden by Tobias Hill.  In The Starboard Sea, Dermont seems to be aware of this formula, and determined to defy it.  The pieces are all there.  Jason comes to a new prep school which has recently started admitting girls.  Many of the students are familiar to him through his other schools and his social circle, and so he immediately identifies the popular crowd.  The twist is that it is the popular crowd that wants Jason, and not Jason who wants to join them.  In fact, it is not until Jason realizes that there is a secret to uncover that he even tries to play nice and win their trust. 

In The Starboard Sea, Jason is an accomplished sailor, who is recruited to join Bellingham's sailing team.  For the last 20 summers, I have raced sailboats.  My husband had been sailing for years when I met him, and he was anxious to teach me.   Jason's character is so familiar to me in the words that he uses and the things that he notices that I know Dermont must have spent years with sailors herself.  The way that Jason notices minute changes in the weather, and can't keep away from the water rings true.  I also loved how Dermont mentioned Jason and his sailing partners feeling so lucky to be able to be out on the water for a race.  So many times when we have been racing, someone has commented on how lucky we are.  I can't think of any other amateur sport where a person would say that - win, lose, or even sitting and waiting for wind, the sailboat racer is lucky, and knows it.  And I mean lucky.  I don't mean fortunate, which when talking about sailing seems pretentious and monetary.

Another great thing about The Starboard Sea is that it is set in the 1980s.  In fact, Jason's class is the same as mine, the class of '88.  It was cool to read another book set in the 1980s so soon after reading Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.  In Ready Player One, people in the 2040s studied James Halliday's favorite things about the 1980s in order to be better prepared to win a huge challenge.  The 1980s of Jason Prosper were entirely different from the 1980s of James Halliday, with Jason reminding me of the "Preppy Killer", Baby Jessica (in the well, remember?), and perestroika, instead of video games, movies and commercials.  Monty Python movies were the only overlapping mention between the two books.

Jason is a flawed character, who believes that he is self-aware, and that he has learned from his mistakes.  However, he is also somehow genetically destined to always be a part of the clique which he tries to avoid.  He is quick to judge others for failing to do the right thing, but sees himself as helpless to correct wrongs even as they unfold in front of him.  It is as though his own errors have condemned him, and he is just watching his life happen from a self-imposed prison.

I really loved The Starboard Sea.  The characters were well developed and interesting, if not always likable.  Being a book using the "elite clique with a secret" formula which I love, being about a sailboat racer, and being set in the 1980s, it's the prefect book for me.  If you liked the books by Pessl, Tartt or Hill, you should give this one a try too.   I would think that other sailors would love the book as well, as long as they are not homophobic, and believe that bullying, even when referred to as hazing, is just wrong.  Unfortunately, that may rule out a good number of potential readers.

One more down for the Support your Library Challenge!  I'm almost done!

Next up:  The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst. This is the first book of the 2012-13 year for the Typical Book Group.

Still Listening to:  The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

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