When a galley of The Starboard Sea landed in the bookstore where I work, I gave the flap copy a quick once-over and set the book back down. A novel about a young man at a boarding school in the 1980s who learns (to incongruously quote Alan Jackson) a lot about living and a little about love. Then something on the cover caught my eye—a blurb from Marilynne Robinson. And while hers may not necessarily be a name meaningful to GLW readers, it is to me: her novels Gilead and Home are among the finest published in the last decade (and I feel bad that I still haven’t read her earlier novel Housekeeping nor any of her nonfiction; note to self: rectify that), and she’s spent years teaching at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. So hers is an opinion that I trust, and if she says that a book is good, there’s a good chance that it’ll be worth the time. And so it was that I took a second look at the novel, and that was a good idea.
The plot is not the thing in The Starboard Sea; at times, it feels like a 1980s-set version of Looking for Alaska, without the idiosyncratic John Greenisms (and neither part of that should be construed as an insult to either book). Jason Prosper (he of the decidedly symbolic name) finds himself running out his senior year at Bellingham Prep, the last-ditch school for the troubled and troublesome rich, after the suicide of his best friend/roommate/sailing partner, Cal; he finds himself fascinated with a “bad girl” named Aidan, and things progress from there. Dermont’s gift is for character—even the most briefly seen people are well-sketched, and the more central characters are wholly memorable. Dermont also takes a narratively daring step by revealing early on something that other authors might have kept secret until near the end—that Jason and Cal were not only friends and teammates but lovers as well.
What is kept a secret until near the end of the book is the meaning of the title, which I won’t spoil. What I will note is something that bugged me—three characters have names that are anagrammatic of each other’s, but there’s no explanation of this in the text. When I asked Amber Dermont about this on Facebook, she complimented me for paying attention and proceeded to, in lieu of giving me an answer, point out that my name anagrams to “Deflects Her Hints.” I can’t complain too much.