“Bellingham Academy: everything you always wanted in a prep school and less.”
Boarding schools have always been a setting that immediately intrigues and captivates me. Generally, young adult literature is criticized for its lack of adult or parental figures, primarily because it doesn’t accurately reflect life as an adolescent. Sure, teenagers may feel as though they have an immense amount of freedom and independence, but adults often play a more significant role in their lives than they like to let on. However, boarding schools are one of the few places where teens are actually free from a constant presence and pressure of adults. There are certainly adults and authority figures around– administration, teachers, and even their parents back home– but there is a sort of barrier between the two parties that diminishes their controlling effect.
When I recieved Amber Dermont’s novel The Starboard Sea as a Christmas gift I was delighted because there it was, written in the blurb on the back cover: Bellingham Academy, a prep school. The gift giver was undoubtedly unaware of my love for boarding school books, yet he had given me a great pleasant surprise all the same. I knew instantly knew that I would at least enjoy the book a little, if for nothing else but its ideal setting.
For me, The Starboard Sea is one of those novels that is simply a good, solid read. Was it a chore to read? Absolutely not! Was it amazing enough to make me want to tell everyone about it and start planning to reread it already? Unfortunately, no. It is definitely enjoyable to read, very well written and even quite poignant at times; however, it’s not a title that will find its way to the top of my favorites list in the near future.
My favorite aspect of this novel is by far the stereotypical idyllic New England boarding school setting. Bellingham Academy lends an air of intrigue to the story, not only due to the school’s rather unsupervised nature but also because of the expectation of wealth and luxury that it imposes on its students. The majority of Bellingham students come from very well-off families, and their surplus of money coupled with their increased independence make for a dangerous yet entertaining combination. You know going into the novel that they are going to get up to some impressive shenanigans, especially since Bellingham is a school with a reputation for giving people second chances. But despite the trouble the students undoubtedly cause, they must nevertheless maintain the appearance of being the well-to-do sons and daughters of Very Important People. Boarding schools are as fun to read about for me as they are fascinating, particularly because of this unexpectedly complex dynamic they create.
Moreover, Dermont does a fantastic job slowly leaking information bit by bit, right up until the very end when the final missing piece is revealed. An extremely surprising twist happens in the middle of the novel, and I was puzzled as to what the rest of the book could possibly be about. There are a plethora of layers to this story that the reader is completely unaware of in the beginning; to be honest, I was blindsided by the vast majority of them. In this regard, I feel as though I may have underestimated The Starboard Sea.
However, I just couldn’t get past the love-hate relationship I had with the main character, Jason. One moment I would bask in his thoughtful philosophizing and moments of admirable courage, and the next I would be frustratedly shaking my head at his return to the cruel, spoiled, idiotic guys with which he spent most of his time. I understand that he was conflicted and wasn’t sure where he belonged from a social perspective, but the constant flip-flopping was a bit much. Realistically, I think someone in his position would eventually have just chosen a side, but Jason battled with this moral dilemma nearly until the very end of the novel.
I also think that some of the darker, more controversial themes discussed in this book appeared to abruptly and weren’t thoroughly explored. I won’t go into too much detail about it because I don’t want to spoil anything, but there is an unsettling scene towards the end of the novel that explains why Jason has such conflicting feelings towards Cal, his best friend who had passed away. It completely took me by surprise, and there wasn’t enough of the story left for me to be fully over the shock before finishing the book. Had Dermont revealed that particular memory sooner and given the readers more time to digest and understand what really happened, perhaps it would be better received.
Overall, The Starboard Sea both impressed and frustrated me. I found its strengths and weaknesses to be fairly balanced, making it rather difficult for me to wholeheartedly love or completely dislike this book. At the very least, it has certainly given me many things to think about, and I’m very grateful that I was given it as a gift!
My Rating: :0) :0) :0) 3 out of 5 smileys.
Would I recommend it to a friend?: Yes!
What are your thoughts about this book? Let me know in the comments section below!
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